Vocabulary acquisition via drama

Using video in the language classroom: benefits for teacher education

What are the benefits of using video in language teacher education? How can we record classroom interaction, and for what ends? What are the problems we face in this kind of enterprise, and why is it worth persevering?


I come to this topic from an applied linguistic background: a BA in Languages (translation & interpreting), MA in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, and PhD in Linguistics with a dissertation on second language acquisition and a minor in language education (IU Bloomington, 1994). My teacher training experience comes from some 20 years in the English department at the university of Nice. For ten years I was in charge of the department’s oral English programmes, supervising 8 or 9 temporary native-speaking language assistants (see a legacy version of our handknitted Oral English website, for students, and the Lecteurs, or teacher pages). Those were the early days of the internet and our use of technology involved language labs with cassette tapes; by the early 2000s we burned CDs with recordings from online radio. Some idea of the context can be gained from these slides (in French, but with lots of pictures and cognates).

In the past ten years, however, my teaching has involved pre-service primary and secondary school teacher preparation both in EFL and technology for language education. Technological advances have meant more use of video in this work.

My research into classroom interaction has involved collaborative action research. A number of projects have involved supporting teachers in the integration of technologies in language teaching, via open educational resources and practices. We have used video to

  • document classroom interaction to investigate L2 use and development;
  • support in-service teacher development
    • directly using video-stimulated recall with project teachers, and
    • indirectly, by creating open resources for teacher education (itilt.eu and www.itilt2.eu);
  • encourage reflective practice among novice teachers, especially in Masters in Teaching English programmes.

Video examples

I recently gave a research presentation (in French) at Grenoble university where I focus on four uses of video. The first two, on in-service teacher development, and the last, on pre-service training, are relevant to this post.

Pilot project on whole-class videoconferencing for primary EFL

This project was initiated by the local educational authorities in response to a national funding opportunity for videoconferencing in English at primary school level. I participated in a pre-intervention training period to help teachers develop teaching materials, then filmed each side of 3 class-to-class VC sessions. I segmented the recordings of each session into 4 or 5 clips lasting 5-10 minutes, corresponding to the different class activities. Then I uploaded the clips to a closed Google site for viewing by all the project teachers.

These clips, together with the follow-up interviews I conducted with each teacher, provided the data for a study of the integration of the new VC technology by this group.

One of the findings was that the teachers tended to select one of two configurations for learner production: either small teams of pupils “broadcast” rehearsed material to the remote class, or individual learners interacted in pairs, each with the support of the teacher.

The use of video in this project allowed the teachers to gain some perspective on their use of this new technology: to compare the recording of their own and the remote class with their own experience during the session, to reflect on their pedagogical choices and their learners’ participation, and in some cases to develop new goals for language teaching.

Whyte, S. (2011). Learning to teach with videoconferencing in primary foreign language classrooms. ReCALL 23(3): 271–293.

Open educational resources project on the IWB in language education

A second project used video in more structured manner: in the EU-funded project iTILT, we filmed language classes at the interactive whiteboard and shared extracts on an open website. Visitors can view short clips, read a description of the activity, see teacher and learner comments and access associated pedagogical materials (lesson plans, IWB files).

Our data collection protocol involved the teacher and researcher viewing class recordings separately, then meeting for a video-stimulated recall (VSR) interview to select video clips for the website. More information about the projects can be found in these publications:

  1. Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., van Hazebrouck, S., & Oberhofer, M. (2014). Open educational resources for CALL teacher education: the iTILT interactive whiteboard project. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27 (2), 122-148
    This paper describes how the videos were recorded, edited, and tagged, and how teacher interviews were conducted to provide data for the website and associated research.
  2. Whyte, S., Beauchamp, G., & Alexander, J. (2014). Researching interactive whiteboard use from primary school to university settings across Europe: an analytical framework for foreign language teaching. University of Wales Journal of Education, 17, 30-52.
    This paper presents a framework for analysing IWB use in the language classroom based on the tags selected for the 267 video clips collected during the project. It provides an overview of IWB use by the 44 project teachers in 6 countries in three areas: IWB use (teacher, one learner, several learners at the board), IWB tools and functions (e.g., drag-and-drop, spotlight), and language teaching objectives (e.g., listening, speaking, grammar).
  3. Whyte, S. (2015). Implementing and researching technological innovation in language teaching: The case of interactive whiteboards for EFL in French schools. Palgrave Macmillan.
    In the book I trace the development of the 9 French teachers in the project (4 primary teachers, 4 secondary, and 1 teacher educator) using a collaborative action research approach combined with a community of practice model. I show how different teachers gained skills and confidence in different technical and pedagogical dimensions of their teaching. I propose a framework for teacher integration of technology to try and account for variation across the group.

These publications show both the advantages and the drawbacks of video with respect to VSR protocols and open educational practices. As in the previous study, the teachers tended to appreciate the opportunity to gain perspective and reflect on their own practice through comparison and exchange with others. The project afforded opportunities for teachers to preview clips from other teachers’ classes both locally and in other project countries, and these teacher focus group sessions seemed to stimulate reflective practice and individual development, as well as offer a rich sources of data for language teacher education research.

Peer filming in pre-service teaching practice

In a third, smaller-scale project with pre-service secondary EFL teachers, I asked trainees to develop teaching activities for the classes they worked with in 2-week school placements, and to record each other delivering their lessons on their smartphones. We used a design brief developed by Samuda (2005) to define the type of teaching activity we wanted to record. Then students used Breen et al’s notion of critical incident as a way to approach the videos they made. They presented their insights to the group and wrote reflective papers on their experience. More information about this initiative (and references) are in this post and on these slides:

Many of these novice teachers selected critical incidents related to classroom management or to learner errors. Two, however, focused on the actual tasks they implemented, one on the task-as-plan, reflecting on flaws in the plan (slide 39), and one on task-as-process, reflecting on an error in the implementation phase (slide 40).

The use of video in this project was intended both for individual reflection and group sharing and feedback. The fact that students made their own recordings gave them control over what was shared. It is entirely possible that students experienced other critical incidents which they preferred not to share with the group.

Most schools gave permission to film, though some restricted us to audio only; in the event the quality of many clips was so poor as to need no blurring were any wider sharing planned. The goal was, of course, to allow better feedback and discussion with these novice teachers, since it is always easier to understand any teaching moment with some audio-visual record.

Feedback on this trainee experience was obtained from students’ reflective papers analysing their critical incidents. In our Masters programme, our novice teachers spend a first year preparing for national competitive teaching exams, and their second year teaching part-time as they complete their training. They often report difficulty in finding time to address all aspects of the programme: preparing for exams, adapting to practical classroom conditions, and accommodating often conflicting perspectives from school tutors, inspectors, and university instructors. The strong pedagogical focus of a task like the one reported above is often not yet a priority for these pre-service teachers.

Whyte, S. (2015). Taking to task(s): Exploring task design by novice language teachers in technology-mediated and non-technological activities. XVII International CALL research conference proceedings, 30-36.

The technical side

When I do my own filming, I use a Sony HDV1080i/miniDV with an additional mic and a tripod, and Mac software (iMovie). I bought it with funding for a previous project at a time when the mini-cassette provided the best compromise between cost and quality, and I have not updated. I sometimes use an iPhone or iPad for a second view. In the iTILT project we also used a professional AV team (2 cameras, one fixed, one mobile, mics for teacher and by board, additional lighting; Final Cut for editing).

In the iTILT project, an issue arose regarding the trade-off between minimising the impact of filming on the classroom context, on one hand, and producing video clips of sufficient quality for online viewing on the project website on the other. We found using a single static camera at the back of the room and no extra microphones meant recordings which were too indistinct for easy comprehension. More intrusive methods using professional audio-visual teams with teacher microphones, both fixed and mobile cameras, and even extra lighting resulted in better quality films. In addition, professional editing of clips using footage from both cameras produced a more polished final product. I learned that the unedited record of a pristine class environment from a tripod in the back corner is no more faithful to what happened in class than a more disruptive recording arrangement which captures the expressions, gestures, and details which are also essential to our interpretation of events.

And in an ideal world

Some of the problems I see with this work, in additional to those mentioned already, relate to the novelty of using video in these ways for teacher education. Experienced teachers are often distracted on first viewing their class films by their own physical appearance and presence in class, or by disruptive learner behaviour which had passed unnoticed during the lesson. Novice teachers may have trouble identifying key elements of effective teacher behaviour from video recordings, as they are often sidetracked by problems which appear superficial and inconsequential to more experienced teachers. Trainees are also often prone to criticism, and try to judge overall effectiveness in ways that are impossible to substantiate from short extracts.

What would make the use of video in language teacher education easier for me are

  • better access to a range of classes through institutional policy which normalises the use of video recording for all types of language teacher education;
  • better recognition of the value of second language teaching research in teacher preparation programmes (for students as both consumers and producers of classroom research)

Improving these two aspects would contribute to the normalisation of analysing video of teaching practice in teacher education, and I believe improve the quality of the training we provide.

Thanks to Tilly Harrison for posing the questions I have addressed here as part of a current British Council project at Warwick University led by Steve Mann.

The task of teaching

I was at the American University of Paris yesterday on a beautiful day in a beautiful part of the city.

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I was invited to talk about pedagogical innovation by integrating technology in the language class; AUP is a liberal arts college with an international study body and students learn French as the host language and academic English for their studies.

I ran a workshop in French taking an OER perspective on task-based language teaching with technologies, with activities focusing on both specific teaching ideas and particular digital tools.

More interesting for me were subsequent discussions with AUP and visiting faculty on more general issues concerning pedagogy and the changing roles of teachers and students in university teaching. Two themes emerged for me: motivation for learning, and general objectives for teaching.

Delayed gratification?

Who is responsible for student motivation and learning?

Some faculty feel quite strongly that it is up to students to find a way into the course content that is presented to them. The consensus among those discussing this yesterday was that instructors have some responsibility in this both in the way they present material and the assignments they set their students.

I was reminded of A.N. Whitehead’s three-stage model of learning, where he recommends teachers try to keep three balls in the air at all times: a “romantic” or big-picture reminder of what a class is trying to achieve and why it matters, “precision” or practice activities that help students develop essential skills and understanding, and a “generalisation” phrase where their attention is drawn to how these new skills are already bringing them closer to their big-picture goals.

I have applied this model to language teaching in a talk on “digital pencil sharpening” (see slides 20 through 36 for the section on general teaching and learning). I believe Whitehead was on to something when he complained that too much teaching spends too long on low-level information, skills and practice, and does so in isolation from what we might term pre- and post-practice reflection, which would help learners make sense of the drudgery.

Other university educators have taken a similar stance. The mathematician Paul Halmos provided the pencil-sharpening metaphor to refer to our tendency to procrastinate in order to avoid intellectually challenging work. I think this also applies to classroom contexts when we fill our syllabus with basic texts and boilerplate assignments to provide “background” which we see as an essential preliminary to the “real” content. But the “good stuff” keeps receding over the horizon.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 08.25.32

Robert Duke makes this point in his excellent 2008 talk Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach. He is especially good on conflicting student/instructor agendas and agrees with Whitehead on the importance of the “here and now,” as this little extract shows:

I wrote about this in a paper on technology and learner autonomy in language education. The more I discuss pedagogy with teachers of subjects other than languages, the more I feel task-based language teaching has a lot to offer the wider educational community.

A second area of my discussions with AUP colleagues is perhaps more related to education in its broader sense than to the specifics of what happens at the chalkface.

What role do we in humanities or liberal arts play in teaching students to think?

Thinking about things that matter

Perhaps inevitably in the current political context, our discussions turned to some of the bigger issues of our times: climate change, immigration policy, electoral discourse. How should we address these with our students?

In the run-up to the US presidential campaign I came across the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff on political discourse.  Lakoff uses frame theory and metaphor to explain how political thought is shaped (and thus manipulated).

He applies this theory to the Trump campaign on his website, and you can read more here for example. I decided to take this theme as our topic for an undergraduate translation course in our media and communication strand: the science of framing political debate. While we need to be careful about political bias in our teaching, I feel we also have some responsibility to take on issues like these when relevant to our classes.

Here’s my take on Lakoff’s contrast between strict father and nurturing family frames in a presentation I prepared for my students:

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 09.55.12


Translation classes, perhaps more than other foreign language classes, allow discussion of issues in a somewhat impartial and unemotional manner. It’s a good opportunity to tackle the meaning and implications of texts in a neutral way: does this expression in language A mean that same as that one in language B? Why did the writer use this particular expression, and how can we render it faithfully yet idiomatically? We’re not discussing what we think about a particular argument or line of thinking. We’re focusing on what the intended meaning seems to be, and how different translations render different aspects of that meaning salient.

The framing comes, of course, from our selection of texts to translate.

What do I take from all this?

Perhaps that it’s stimulating to talk about teaching and learning with colleagues in other disciplines in different university contexts.

Perhaps that language education might have some approaches and ideas for addressing pedagogical issues that are relevant to other university disciplines.

Or simply that the “here and now” can shift depending on both the focus of your attention and your vantage point.


Duke, R. (2008). «Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach» [lecture; online]. http://www.cornell.edu/video/?VideoID=225 (2013-06-01).

Halmos, P. (1985). I Want to Be a Mathematician. New York: Springer Verlag.

Halmos, P. (1975). «The Problem of Learning to Teach». American Mathematical Monthly, 82, pp. 466-476.

Whitehead, A.N. ([1917] 1932). «The Aims of Education». In: Whitehead, A.N. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. London: Ernest Benn.

Whyte, S. (2014). Digital pencil sharpening: technology integration and language learning autonomy. EL.LE, 3(1): 31-53. Università Ca’ Foscari, Venezia. [PDF]


La vidéo dans la classe de langue : analyse et partage dans l’exploration de l’agir professoral

Shona Whyte                                                                               Séminaire LIDILEM 5 avril 2017
UMR 7320 Bases, Corpus, Langage                                                    Université Grenoble Alpes
Université Côte d’Azur                                                             Le numérique et l’agir professoral

 L’enregistrement vidéo de séances de classe est un moyen privilégié d’étudier les interactions en classe de langue et l’agir enseignant de manière générale. La généralisation d’outils d’enregistrement vidéo permet l’acquisition de données primaires qui peuvent ensuite être confrontées à d’autres sources d’informations sur les processus cognitifs des acteurs (Rivens-Mompean & Guichon, 2009). Un objectif majeur de ce type de recherche est en effet de confronter la pensée enseignante avec l’agir enseignant (Borg, 2003, 2006). La rétroaction vidéo (Tochon 1996) permet un rappel stimulé, souvent au cours d’un entretien d’autoconfrontation, et constitue pour Woods (1996) “un point de départ concret pour provoquer de la discussion pédagogique.” Elle permet également de reconnaître l’agentivité des praticiens et de leur rôle de médiateur dans les interactions de classe, voire de les inclure dans la démarche de recherche, notamment dans le cas de la recherche-action collaborative.

Nous présentons des données de trois projets sur l’intégration d’outils numériques dans l’enseignement des langues, notamment de l’anglais langue étrangère dans l’enseignement primaire et secondaire en France : un projet académique de visioconférence à l’école primaire (Cutrim Schmid & Whyte, 2012; Whyte, 2011), un projet européen de création de ressources éducatives libres pour la formation des enseignants de langue (Whyte et al, 2013; Whyte, 2014), et une expérimentation sur la tâche par vidéocommunication en anglais lingua franca à l’école (Whyte & Cutrim Schmid, 2014; Cutrim Schmid & Whyte, 2015). Nous abordons les questions d’ordre pratique pour enregistrer des données en perturbant le moins possible l’écologie naturelle de la classe tout en conservant une qualité technique suffisante pour les besoins du projet. Nous analysons des exemples de commentaires d’enseignants et d’apprenants démontrant l’intérêt d’un visionnage individuel et collectif d’extraits de films de classe au service d’objectifs de formation divers. Nous terminons par quelques remarques sur les ressources et les pratiques libres et le rôle de la vidéo dans ce type de partage d’expérience.



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Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (Eds.) (2014). Teaching languages with technology: communicative approaches to interactive whiteboard use. A resource book for teacher development. London: Bloomsbury. [link]

Cutrim Schmid, E., & Whyte, S. (2012). Interactive Whiteboards in School Settings: Teacher Responses to Socio-constructivist Hegemonies. Language Learning and Technology 16 (2), 65-86.

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Whyte, S. (2011). Learning to teach with videoconferencing in primary foreign language classrooms. ReCALL 23(3): 271–293.

Whyte, S., Beauchamp, G., & Alexander, J. (2014). Researching interactive whiteboard use from primary school to university settings across Europe: an analytical framework for foreign language teaching. University of Wales Journal of Education, 17, 30-52. [link]

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Whyte, S., Cutrim Schmid, E., van Hazebrouck, S., & Oberhofer, M. (2014). Open educational resources for CALL teacher education: the iTILT interactive whiteboard project. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27 (2), 122-148

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Formulaic sequences in EAP and SLA

Formulaic sequences in English for Academic Purposes and Second Language Acquisition: towards the characterisation of lexico-grammatical norms
GERAS 2017

Shona Whyte & Cédric Sarré

This paper discusses a phenomenon often discussed under the umbrella term “formulaic sequences” (FS) and used to refer to chunks, clusters, collocations, idiomatic expressions, multi-word expressions, lexicogrammatical patterns, or processing units in different areas of psycholinguistics, systemic-functional linguistics, second language research and corpus linguistics, to name but these fields. With respect to the teaching and learning of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), formulaic sequences are of interest from two contrasting perspectives. The first, more traditional approach in ESP, has been to treat FS from a speaker-external perspective, defining FS as “the use of idioms, idiomatic expressions, and collocations used by NSs and L2 learners, that is, what is formulaic in a given language” (Myles & Cordier, 2016). In phraseological terms, FS may be viewed as “the preferred way of saying things in a particular discourse” (Gledhill, 2000). A second approach is favoured in second language acquisition research, and involves a speaker-internal or psycholinguistic definition of FS as “multiword units which present a processing advantage for a given speaker, either because they are stored whole in his/her mental lexicon (Wray 2002) or because they are highly automatised” (Cordier, 2013). Each approach is appropriate to the research questions of interest. Thus in second language research, objectives include the characterisation of FS in L2 speech production and their role in L2 development. Studies thus compare learners’ use of strings retrieved holistically with those generated online, using distinguishing criteria such as fluency, form-function mapping, and frequency in input and output (Myles & Cordier, 2016). In ESP research, on the other hand, one goal is to improve the efficiency of ESP teaching by focusing on particular FS. Give the importance of FS in fluent processing, and high frequency of such “semi-preconstructed phrases” (Sinclair, 1991), it is argued that “the more frequent items have the highest utility and should therefore be taught and tested earlier” (Nation, 2001, cited in Simpson-Vlach & Ellis, 2010). To this end, Simpson-Vlach and Ellis (2010) applied a number of frequency, collocational and pedagogical criteria to FS in spoken and written corpora of academic and general English to generate an academic formulas list of 200 FS deemed most worth teaching. It remains to be shown, however, how L2 acquisition of such externally defined FS proceeds, or how pedagogical intervention can encourage this process. This paper reviews definitions of FS from these two contrasting perspectives, highlighting problems at the intersection of the two approaches identified by Myles and Cordier (2016). It discusses the design of research instruments to replicate an empirical study by Lindstrom et al (2016) in order to address the question of how FS can best be taught and learned in English for Academic Purposes.


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Mobility abroad in teacher education: a virtuous spiral

SPIRAL, School-teacher Professionalisation: Intercultural Resources and Languages, is a European teacher education project which aims to develop intercultural and foreign language competence in pre-service primary teachers (Erasmus+ 2015-18).


The project

Coordinated by the French International Centre for Pedagogical Studies (CIEP), SPIRAL involves institutions for teacher education in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. The project partners have designed a learning platform to support trainee teachers who undertake short school placements in a different country.
The platform provides
  • practical help in making contact with their host schools, and
  • pedagogical support for making the most of this opportunity to develop teaching and intercultural competences.

In each of the three years of the project’s lifetime, 30 pre-service primary teachers (6 from each partner country) make 2-week school visits to another project country. Where possible, the mobility is organised as part of regular teacher training courses.

The learning platform

The online platform has been purpose-built to accommodate participants from the five SPIRAL countries on Moodle, using the project’s own graphic identity. It includes
  • a survey tool
  • a built-in video/audio recorder, and
  • an ePortfolio.

The platform offers a structured sequence of 17 activities designed to help learners before, during, and after their mobility along three dimensions labelled research, practice, and language. Following a self-assessment activity, where participants complete can-do statements related to a common reference framework developed by the project, the primary student-teachers work on the activities with support from a tutor in their home country.

Examples of activities designed for the three dimensions at each stage of the mobility are shown below:

(10 activities)
read articles on intercultural competence (ICC)
find out about education system in host country
record a video CV for host school
(3 activities)
explore four Competence Cards (intercultural competences) selected for special emphasis
keep classroom observation notes in relation to each competence
monitor own language and teaching experiences where appropriate
(4 activities)
relate own experience to previous ICC reading
write a reflective paper
record a short oral reaction to experience
Student teachers enroll in the learning path corresponding to the host country: a French student going to the Netherlands joins the Dutch path. Instructions are offered in each of the project’s five languages in each path. The activities are identical in each path, with the exception of one webquest specific to each host country. The trainee teachers can collect a variety of media in their own space on the SPIRAL platform (web links, audio, video, text, PDF), organise these into collections (folders) and share whole collections or parts with their home tutors. Host teacher feedback is also expected.

SPIRAL in teacher education

A group of language educators external to the project were invited to a presentation of the project at the University of Alcala for feedback on progress to date.

My impression was very favourable: it’s clear a great deal of thought and effort has gone into the design of online activities. The results appears coherent, well integrated in local SPIRAL contexts, and very relevant to the wider language education community. This is the kind of project that institutions should support through long-term integration into local curricula and programmes, in order to establish its role in intercultural and foreign language teacher education. We know from experience that when modules appear in permanent course catalogues with an appropriate attribution of credits, buy-in by both tutors and trainees is much easier to sustain. And once institutional recognition is assured, generalisation to other institutions across academies, countries, and even at the international level, becomes a real possibility.

Supporting (language) teacher education with mobility

It is hard to resist the temptation to raise a few issues I think are worth considering for a possible SPIRAL 2 and beyond, with the goals of sustainability and normalisation (Bax, 2003) for exploiting mobility in teacher education.

Closed versus open platforms

I confess my heart sinks when I log on to most traditional learning management systems like Moodle. My objections include
  • an uninviting interface where I see only enclosing folder upon enclosing folder containing information to be downloaded and assignments to be completed. The internet’s answer to brutalist architecture;
  • the top-down pedagogical framework: the user cannot take an initiatives, only respond to activities already defined and timetabled in advance;
  • the lack of ownership of any resources added: neither students nor instructors are assured of being able to retrieve work accomplished on the platform, either for their records or to use/share for other purposes.


While open platforms using free tools obviously have the drawbacks of not providing the privacy and safe space to share that students often need, they do offer more freedom in both the type of resources that can be accessed and the range of activities that can be engaged in. On open platforms, future teachers can learn to use tools they may re-use with their own pupils as their careers progress, and they also have control over what happens to any work they post. Perhaps most importantly, they can interact with one another.

Tutor-trainee exchange versus group interaction

My second gripe about online delivery of this type of course is related to the first. Because they tend to reflect somewhat conservative views of both web-related technology and pedagogical practice, Moodle-type learning platforms encourage a fairly transmissive view of teaching and learning. The instructor defines the content, plans delivery, and sets assignments to check understanding. The instructor uploads materials for the student to download and digest, the students upload materials for the instructor to download and evaluate, and the instructor posts feedback. Students don’t collaborate either on the input provided by the instructor, or on the output produced by each student.
This format misses opportunities for students to learn from one another, either by collaborating on learning tasks or by providing feedback to one another. The whole burden of supporting learning and assessing it is borne by the instructor alone. This makes it more likely for both sides to become discouraged, since the students have no peer support and the instructor is limited to providing individual feedback.
In courses covering foreign language learning and intercultural understanding, it seems important to include multiple perspectives, making group interaction an obvious asset for both teaching and learning.

In case of SPIRAL, since the project has a fixed duration and functions essentially as a pilot for a future intercultural/foreign language course, there is neither funding nor staff resources for more interactive modules. But this is a point to consider in any future developments, in my view.

Intercultural learning versus foreign language focus

Alcala city hall displays a portrait of El Empecinado (the Undaunted) who saved the city from Napoleon against the odds, and gave the Spanish language the verb empecinarse (to insist).

My third point concerns the relative importance of intercultural versus foreign language competences. I understand that particularly in primary education, where teachers are responsible for a general curriculum comprising all the core subjects, it is unrealistic to expect very high foreign language proficiency from participants (e.g., CER level C). I also concede that my own linguistic training disposes me to place high value on both language proficiency and linguistic knowledge. But I do feel that to improve the language skills of tomorrow’s citizens we need teachers able to teach foreign languages well, which would imply both having good language skills and knowing how to support classroom foreign language learning. (See recent research by de Bot and colleagues on instructional time and teacher proficiency with very young learners in Dutch schools, references below.)

I feel that we have in many ways abandoned the goal of promoting foreign language acquisition in schools.

Much language teaching is diverted towards culture, to the detriment of actual language learning.
Primary school language teaching, seldom delivered by language specialists, often emphasises human geography and cultural traditions. Secondary school and university programmes generally focus on learning about the target language grammar, as a gateway to the target culture. More recently, intercultural competence, or communicating with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, has taken centre stage. As a linguist, I argue against both approaches.
Intercultural competence is a natural consequence of learning a foreign language, and need not be a specific focus of study.
In learning to comprehend target language speakers, and in turn express themselves even approximately, learners being to equip themselves both to understand communication breakdown and negotiate misunderstandings. And as proficiency develops, the culture of the second language can constitute content (like history, mathematics, or science in CLIL teaching).
The culture of target language speakers can be studied separately, once the language has been acquired to an appropriate level.
No doubt the current focus in language classrooms on cultural and intercultural competence is partly due to the difficulty of actual language learning. Acquisition is a notoriously long and uncertain process which does not lend itself easily to short teacher training programmes (which often also have other, more pressing learning objectives to attain). All the more reason, I would say, to grasp the nettle.
I believe a number of steps can be taken to address the problems of second/foreign language learning and teaching during teacher training.

Experiential modelling

At the very least, our teacher education modules should offer a good model of using the foreign language to communicate. We should provide opportunities for spontaneous exchange, in written or spoken mode, using any of the many synchronous and asynchronous tools now available. We should allow student teachers to try out their perhaps limited linguistic skills in a safe environment, where mistakes can be made and risks taken, risks and errors both being integral to language acquisition. Then they can hit the ground running when they arrive in the host environment.

Collecting teaching resources

We should also encourage student teachers to seize the opportunity of a stay in the target culture to collect resources to be used in future language teaching classes, such as photographs, recordings of native speakers, or cultural artifacts. They should also try and cultivate contacts for future class exchanges. This would remind student teachers that this school placement is not simply a chance to put themselves in their learners’ shoes as low proficiency speakers. It is also a chance to view the host class through their learners’ eyes: what would an eight-year old French child notice about the German classroom? What topics could be explored in future class exchanges? Note that this argument applies to placements where students use English as a lingua franca (e.g., French students working in English in the Netherlands) as well as where they aim to teach the host language (e.g., German future teachers of English in the UK).

Continuing professional development

Finally, any teaching module based on foreign language teaching and learning should provide motivation and resources for ongoing language learning on the part of the future teacher. A placement of two weeks, a month, or a full term in the target culture will in most case suffice only to assure the student teacher of the extent of language practice still to be undertaken if a level of proficiency is to be attained that is truly comfortable for teaching. Upon their return, we need to offer ways to prolong and extend contact with the target language.

Only in this way can we ensure that new generations of teachers have the wherewithal to create genuine opportunities for language acquisition in their classes.


Bax, S. (2003). CALL—past, present and future. System, 31(1), 13-28.
De Bot, K. (2014). The effectiveness of early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 409-418.
SPIRAL common reference framework PDF
SPIRAL competence cards PDF

Unsworth, S., Persson, L., Prins, T., & De Bot, K. (2014). An investigation of factors affecting early foreign language learning in the Netherlands. Applied Linguistics.

Photos from unsplash, the SPIRAL project site and Twitter feed, or my own.

Is task-based language teaching just a variation on presentation-practice-production?

Many language teachers are interested in the question of what makes a task a task. Pre-service teachers are often under pressure to conform to some see as the hegemony of task-based language teaching (TBLT) which they feel is imposed on teachers by the Common European Reference framework (CER). They want to know whether their textbook which claim to follow CER principles offer genuinely task-based teaching activities. Or they wonder how the demands of “authentic” language use associated with TBLT can be squared with the seemingly artificial language used in the foreign language classroom where everyone shares a native language.

Teacher educators, too, struggle with strong versions of a task-based approach, as opposed to weaker, task-supported incarnations, which often seem to overlap with the production phase of the PPP approach, where structures are Presented and Practiced with the teacher before learners are encourage to Produce their own contributions. Does this seem a reasonable compromise, or does it mean abandoning the principles of TBLT?

In the slides above I summarise two articles, one by Jason Anderson in defence of PPP, and another by Rod Ellis, one of the main proponents of TBLT. Anderson argues that PPP has admirably stood the test of time and is suited to a wider range of teaching contexts than TBLT. Ellis, on the other hand, defends TBLT against a number of misconceptions about this approach, and to my mind invalidates many of Anderson’s points. My own view is that TBLT is quite different from PPP, and that there are good reasons, related to how languages are learned, to favour TBLT (see Jordan for instance).

Update 15/03/17: more from Jordan on Two versions of task-based language teaching, drawing in Long’s book on TBLT and SLA, and Breen’s process syllabus.

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. Practice, 19.

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8(1), 1-27.

Jordan, G. Principles and practice. Critical EFL.