Dig Deep – Retrieval Practice in Language Learning (updated blog)

I spend a lot of time encouraging my students to ‘dig deep’ and as a result they know exactly what I mean! I invariably say it when a student, or group of students, are experiencing a ‘block’ on a word or phrase that I know they have encountered and that I am fairly convinced they would know if they read or heard it. Generally these words or phrases are present in the students’ passive language but have either not yet made it to their ‘active’ language or they were once active but haven’t been used for a while. Whatever the reason, I never give them the word. I make them remember it! So a quick game of hangman, use of synonyms or antonyms, word association or most commonly, some acting (by me!) always follows. This is definitely a regular occurrence in my classroom which encouraged me to explore ways to ensure students can ‘activate’, and importantly keep active, as much vocabulary as possible.

This is where retrieval practice comes in. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of retrieval to improve revision; both how we revise with students and how they revise independently. There’s a lot of in depth and quite complex research on retrieval practice but two things really struck me as a language teacher.

The first was the notion of repeated testing. Evidence shows that repeated ‘testing’ can enhance retention more than repeated ‘studying’, and that this has been demonstrated by Karpicke and Roediger in the context of language learning. I have to admit, and I imagine it is the same for most teachers, that I am not a fan of the word ‘test’. However, I believe that there are so many creative and innovative ways to ‘test’ learners’ vocabulary, and grammar, acquisition without them feeling that they are constantly being ‘tested’ so I felt quite comfortable reflecting on how I could take this first idea forward.

The second was the notion of recall. However, not just recall from the previous class or last week’s class but recall from what had been learned 3, 6 or 9 months ago.  This really got me thinking as I imagine that, like me, most language teachers rely on regular vocab quizzes in a variety of forms to check retention. But how many of us start a class with a warm-up vocab activity on a topic we studied 3 months ago? Or use an exit-pass to review future stems when we are in the process of teaching the perfect tense? I certainly hadn’t ever done this. I hadn’t ever considered continuous testing on previous topics whilst simultaneously working on new material. I always try to encourage the transferability of vocabulary, especially verbs, but I hadn’t ever specifically ‘tested’ learners on topic specific vocab that we had covered weeks or months before. In fact, I was a little worried that this may cause confusion and destabilise the students. However, I’m all for taking calculated risks so I decided to try it anyway!

And yes, it was a surprise for the students. However, they worked together, ‘dug deep’ and eventually did it. After this I tried to regularly move backwards – it did seem to work. It certainly kept the students alert and engaged too, but I needed a way to keep this ‘fresh’ in my daily practice.

It was actually thanks to an idea I saw on Twitter about Challenge Capsules that made me think of creating a ‘’retrieval’ box.

I filled it with a variety of vocabulary related ‘challenges’ such as ‘Note down 5 adjectives that you could use to describe your family’, ‘List 8 key words from the sub-topic – ‘l’engagement politique’, ’Note down synonyms for the following words…. and now the antonyms’ as well as more traditional style vocab quizzes. (I have to say though that I love the ‘freer’ style vocab activities which always guarantee that instead of reviewing 10 words chosen by the teacher you end up reviewing over 20 fantastic words that students have collectively recalled.) I also asked my students to help me fill the box. They loved having ownership of learning activities and as well as encouraging them to immerse themselves in an in-depth vocabulary review by creating ‘tests’ for each other, it saved me some time too. Win, win!

I think that this really worked and it encouraged students to engage in a regular challenging recall process to ensure that they retained, kept active and ‘owned’ their language. I have therefore revived my Retrieval Box and am determined to keep looking back, as well as forward, this year!

Dig Deep Box.jpg





Les verbes

verb image

French verbs do not generally conjure up fond memories among my adult learners and the tense work that we do is often approached with a certain degree of wariness. With so many conjugation patterns and irregular verbs to contend with, this is really no surprise. However, verbs are a crucial part of communication – we can’t make sentences without them! It’s the verbs that enable us to ask questions, express actions, give opinions and explain situations – and also to do this in the past, present and the future. Finding ways to help my learners make French verbs seem a little less scary and little more manageable is very important for me, and I hope this post does that in some way!

My first piece of advice when learning new verbs is to build the instinct of checking if it is an ‘er’ verb (e.g. manger, jouer, habiter), an ‘ir’ verb (e.g. finir, choisir, remplir) or  an ‘re’ verb (e.g. attendre, vendre, répondre) and then finding out if it is a regular or irregular verb. This quick check will enable you to identify the formation pattern associated with that verb – even irregular verbs have patterns. If you can find the pattern you can form the verb!

Here are some useful patterns to know (for the purpose of this post I have focused on present tense formations of the most common verbs that we use in class and have not picked up on stem-changing ‘er’ verbs):

  1. ‘er’ verbs

There are more ‘er’ verbs than ‘ir’ and ‘re’ verbs and the majority of these are regular. In fact, there is only one distinct irregular verb which is ‘aller’ (to go). So if you focus on learning the regular conjugation pattern for ‘er’ verbs you will be able to use a very wide range of verbs. What a relief!

  1. ‘ir’ verbs

There are quite a number of irregular ‘ir’ verbs but these do not need to be learned individually as many form their own ‘group’. For example, ‘partir’ (to leave) and ‘dormir’ (to sleep) may look different but they actually conjugate in the same way:

Present Tense :


Je pars

Tu pars

Il / elle part

Nous partons

Vous partez

Ils partent

Present Tense:


Je dors

Tu dors

Il / elle dort

Nous dormons

Vous dormez

Ils dorment

Other verbs which follow the same pattern as ‘partir’ and ‘dormir’ are:

sortir (to go out)

(se) sentir (to feel)

servir (to serve)

mentir (to lie)

And also, all verbs that come from these verbs such as:

s’endormir (to fall asleep)

repartir (to leave again / to set off again)

ressentir (to feel)

‘Venir’ (to come) is another common irregular ‘ir’ verb which conjugates like this:

Present Tense :


Je viens

Tu viens

Il / elle vient

Nous venons

Vous venez

Ils viennent

Other verbs following this pattern include:

tenir (to hold)

maintenir (to maintain)

appartenir (to belong)

And also, all verbs that come from these verbs such as:

revenir (to come back)

devenir (to become)

retenir (to retain)

‘Ouvrir’ (to open) like ‘offrir’ (to offer) are common irregular ‘ir’ verbs which may not look similar but which conjugate in the same way:

Present Tense :


Je ouvre

Tu ouvres

Il / elle ouvre

Nous ouvrons

Vous ouvrez

Ils ouvrent

Present Tense :


Je offre

Tu offres

Il / elle offre

Nous offrons

Vous offrez

Ils offrent

The following verbs form in the same way as ‘ouvrir’ and ‘offrir’

couvrir (to cover)

souffrir (to suffer)

And once again, verb derivatives of these verbs including:

recouvrir (to cover up)

rouvrir (to reopen)

découvrir (to discover)

  1. ‘re’

Like irregular ‘ir’ verbs there are many irregular ‘re’ verbs which form ‘groups’ such as:

Present Tense :

Prendre (to take)

Je prends

Tu prends

Il / elle prend

Nous prenons

Vous prenez

Ils prennent

apprendre (to learn)

surprendre (to surprise)

comprendre (to understand)

reprendre (to retake)

entreprendre (to undertake)

battre (to beat)



Present Tense :

Connaître (to know)

Je connais

Tu connais

Il / elle connaît

Nous connaissons

Vous connaissez

Ils connaissent

apparaître (to appear)

disparaître (to disappear)

paraître (to seem)

reconnaître (to recognise)





Present Tense :

Mettre (to put)

Je mets

Tu mets

Il / elle met

Nous mettons

Vous mettez

Ils mettent

commettre (to commit)

permettre (to allow)

compromettre (to compromise)

promettre (to promise)

transmettre (to transmit)

admettre (to admit)



Present Tense :

Atteindre (to reach)


Tu atteins

Il / elle atteint

Nous atteignons

Vous atteignez

Ils atteignent

atteindre (to reach)

craindre (to fear)

se plaindre (to complain)

joindre (to join)

éteindre (to switch off)

peindre (to paint)


If you learn one verb from each of these groups, then you can form all of the verbs in the group. So, from the list of verbs above, you could actually learn just 7 verbs and yet be able to form 49!

There are of course some common exceptions that must be learned individually and I’m sure it will be no surprise to anyone which these include:

avoir, être, faire, pouvoir, devoir, savoir, vouloir

But I suppose French wouldn’t be French without an exception!
























Your Ear Workout!

Astuce du mois – septembre

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Photo by Juja Han on Unsplash

Feedback from learners suggests that listening is definitely the aspect of learning that creates the most panic and trepidation. I fully empathise with as I too suffered from real anxiety when tackling listening comprehensions and tests. In fact, in my final A Level exam, I will never forget writing about a lemon (un citron) instead of the car manufacturer, Citroën! As I had achieved almost full marks in the oral exam, this epic mistake actually triggered a trip to the hospital for a hearing test, which concluded that my hearing was fine. The problem was my listening. I had no strategy and I had no confidence.

Like I did (and still do), many learners find it easier to understand a French speaker during a conversation face to face. This is generally because you can rely on more than just the words to help your understanding such as facial expressions, eye contact, body language, hand gestures – we give so much away without sometimes uttering a word! Equally, you can more easily control a conversation face to face by asking for repetition, asking your interlocutor to slow down or asking him / her to rephrase what they have said. It is more difficult when listening to a recorded passage, but there are ways to improve your listening skills.

The trick is to ‘train’ your ear in order to ‘tune’ it into spoken French. You can achieve this by maximising your exposure to the rhythm and sounds of the language as well as tuning into the pitch (there is a greater range of audio frequency in spoken French than English) and also familiarising your ear to stress placement (French is a syllable timed language so every syllable is the same length whereas English is a stress timed language so there is as mix of short and long syllables – this is partly why French sounds so musical)).

Here are three ‘training’ activities you could try out at home. Don’t try them all at once!:

♫ Rhythm and Flow – Recorded passages can often feel too fast and at times, quite unmanageable. A good technique is to focus on breaking up the passage by marking out the natural pauses. These will usually occur when a speaker finishes a sentence, a clause or has asked a question. The more you listen out for these natural pauses, the more you will be able to predict when these are going to happen as you will have tuned in to the rhythm of the spoken French. The natural pauses are a great time to pause the passage without interrupting the flow in order to make notes or rewind and listen again. I’d suggest initially using recordings (either monologues or dialogues / conversations) that are at, or one level above, your current working level in French. Podcast français facile (http://www.podcastfrancaisfacile.com) has a great range of recordings (don’t use the transcript though to start with!)

♫ Sounds – There is research to show that exposing your ear to combinations of sounds in the target language increases your ability to learn new words. This is because exposure to new sound patterns helps to develop neural structures in the brain which are necessary to learn a new language. Therefore, listening to French radio, music or podcasts, even if you don’t understand what is being said, can really help boost your capacity to pick new words. I like using Radio France Internationale (RFI) as I can use it on my computer or via the app on my phone. It offers top stories, headlines and music programmes.

♫ Known Words – When listening to a recorded passage it is very tempting to be distracted by the words that you don’t know. One technique is to focus on the words you do know and to then use these to build a picture of what is happening in the passage. This can sometimes be a risky strategy in a more formal or exam situation (as demonstrated with my ‘un citron’ or ‘Citroën’ debacle!) but focusing on what you know before what you don’t know is good practice and a good training technique. Again, I’d suggest using recordings (either monologues or dialogues / conversations) that are at, or one level above, your current working level in French.

Listening as much as possible to French, whether it’s to watch a film, listen to the radio, listen to songs or work more intensively on a recorded passage, is essential for improving your listening skills.

Don’t forget that the human ear has 6 muscles in total and they all need a work out!
workout emojiBonne écoute!



Reading in French for Pleasure

Astuce pour l’été


Reading ‘actively’ is a fantastic way to develop language. It can help build vocabulary, understand and develop grammatical structures, and both consolidate and assimilate language.

But, what if you just want to read a book in French for pleasure… to lose yourself in an engaging storyline, to relax at the end of the day or to enjoy at the beach on holiday? This is a fantastic endeavour, but one that can leave many learners of French, particularly those who are book lovers, feeling quite disheartened because it is no mean feat. To give yourself the very best chance of not only finishing, but also enjoying the book, it is very important to ensure that you take time to find the right book for you. Here a few pointers you may wish to consider when making your selection:

  1. The level of the book: There is nothing quite like reading a gripping page-turner that you can’t wait to pick up and read each day. Fast pace, complex characters and twists and turns are all wonderful ingredients in a book but if you have to look up every other word you can soon lose the momentum – and the plot! When choosing a book to read for pleasure, it’s important to choose one that mirrors your level in French so that you can genuinely sit back and enjoy reading. Of course, there will be words that you feel you may need / want to look up, but on the whole, being able to comfortably follow and engage with the storyline without too much support is best.

If you are a beginner / higher beginner, then you could try the Black Cat Cideb (available at www.languages-direct.com) or Lecteurs Cle (www.cle-international.com) which offer a range of books specifically aimed at learners of French. Concorde (www.concordefrench.com) also have a good selection of books as well as magazines for French learners. You can also find a selection of second hand books in this style via Amazon. Equally, there are some great children’s books like Le Petit Nicolas which is widely available and comes highly recommended (although I will admit that I have not read it myself!)

For more advanced learners, who don’t feel quite ready to launch into a full novel, bilingual books are available at www.pocket.fr in the section ‘Langues pour tous’.

  1. The genre of the book: This may go without saying but it is important to remember that if you don’t really like science-fiction books in English then you probably won’t like them in French either! Once you have found books that are suitable to your level you may have less choice of genre, but try to choose something that you have a real interest in and that you think you may enjoy. You can even read the French version of a book you have loved in English. Knowing the story already will give you a real head start and help you feel more confident in resisting looking up every unknown word. Nothing can beat scouring ‘un petit bouquiniste’ for a good read but this isn’t always possible so you can order these from sites like FNAC (fnac.com) or amazon.fr. French readers devour crime novels and they are some extremely talented authors to explore so if this genre is for you then you may be spoilt for choice! Michel Bussi is on my list of authors to read!

3. The ‘tense’ of the book: It is likely that you will come across the past historic (sometimes referred to as the preterite) if you choose to read a novel that has not been adapted for second language learners, and without doubt if you choose a classic. The tense is rarely taught nowadays as it is almost exclusively used in literary texts and almost never in spoken French. However, for most Intermediate / Advanced learners, it will be quite straight forward to understand in context so don’t let this put you off!

If you still don’t feel ready to tackle a French book, then don’t forget that there are some truly brilliant French TV shows out there! I am waiting with bated breath for the return of “Engrenages” (Spirals)!!

NB: If you buy French books from any other source then please do let me know and I will add this information!

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Recycling and Transferring Vocabulary

Vocab SilosAstuce du mois – juin

Most language courses are delivered using a topic based approach. This is a great way to develop a range of relevant vocabulary, expressions and key structures to feel more confident to engage in conversation or tackle specific situations.

The trap that we can risk falling into with this approach (both learners and tutors!) is ‘compartmentalising’ vocabulary and almost creating word silos. This means that each time a new topic begins, we start with a blank page.

However, for most topics (at every level) it is very useful to start by recalling and actively looking back at previously learned vocabulary that links with the new topic. It is highly likely that the page will no longer be blank!

For example, if the new topic is Health and Well Being, firstly retrieving vocabulary from Pastimes and the Food and Drink topic would be a great a starting point.

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Taking time to do this, at home or in class (that’s my job!), at the start of each topic is a fantastic way to recall, practise and embed vocabulary as well as being a great reminder that you always know more than you think!

With this in mind, can you note down 5-10 words from a previous topic that would fit into your current topic?

Bon courage!

What’s On!

Once again, many thanks to everyone who contributes to this section. This month’s recommendations are:

‘Riviera’, heralded as the new Sky Atlantic ‘must see’ by magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, won’t necessarily give your French a good work-out but if you love the French Riviera and its beautiful surroundings, expensive clothes and indulging vicariously in a decadent lifestyle, then this is definitely for you!

For music fans, you may wish to try out albums by Heloise Letissier ( performing as Christine & the Queens ) – “La Chaleur Humaine” and Camille (Dalmais). Their websites are http://www.christineandthequeens.com/home/ and http://www.camilleofficiel.fr. These are well worth a listen!


Astuce du mois!- mai

active vocab

Developing your ‘active’ vocabulary

“When you say you know a word or phrase, you could mean one of two things. First, you could mean that if someone says the word to you (or if you read the word), you know what it means. This is passive knowledge. The second way of knowing is that you can recall and use that vocabulary appropriately. This is active knowledge.” (Grigg, 2012) Generally your passive knowledge is greater than your active knowledge – this is completely normal but it can be frustrating at times, especially when you know you know the word but you can’t recall it quick enough to use in conversation!

Reading over lists of words and expressions may contribute to increasing your passive vocabulary but it is unlikely that it will fully help to develop your active knowledge. Developing your active vocabulary requires active input! There are a few ways that you can do this that don’t take too long and that you can do at home.

One of my favourites is topic based active recall. So for example, if you have studied ‘la famille’, your task would be to say out loud or write down, all the members of the family that you can remember, or any other words that you have studied as part of this topic – without looking at your notes. If you draw a blank when you start the task, give yourself a ‘trigger’ word. Very often, once you recall one word, others begin to flow. For example, if choose ‘la mère’ as your starter word, you may recall ‘le père’, which may lead to ‘le frère’ as it sounds very similar, which may lead to ‘la soeur’ and then perhaps other female members of the family – can you then remember the male members of the family? Once you have listed as many as you feel you can, if there are words that you think you know, but cannot remember, look them up – this is not cheating! You will recognise the word as soon as you see it, so it is there in your passive knowledge – you just need to work to transfer it to your active knowledge. You will always remember more than you think you do!

If you have time, you can then review your list of words – which ones do you feel you would use in a conversation about your family? Tick these and then try to develop sentences using these words. This extension activity will help you review structures that you have practised and help you embed the words in context.

This process can be used at any level. In fact, it is particularly effective for Intermediate and Advanced learners who want to develop their active vocabulary as it will encourage you to try to use words and expressions that you may know, but may not use.

And remember, you don’t have to just focus on what you have explored recently in class. Active recall strategies are a great way of keeping all your vocabulary fresh. You could challenge yourself by choosing a topic from a previous block of classes and noting down as much vocab as you can remember…. how do you think you’ll do?!!

The opening quote is taken from an article Hugh Grigg, Active vs passive vocabulary – do you know the difference https://eastasiastudent.net/study/active-passive-vocabulary/

Astuce du moi!

Each week, I am asked some great questions from my adult learners about how to improve certain aspects of their French and how they can work independently and effectively. My intention is always to share these with each group but I often forget as we are so busy! I have therefore started to do an ‘Astuce du moi!’ (Tip of the Month) email. One learner, who has found these quick tips very useful, has encouraged me to post these so that other language learners, and perhaps practitioners, can have a look too. Hope you find them useful! 

Astuce du mois! (mars 2017) –  Improving pronunciation and developing rhythm


Listening to as much French as possible is key to improving your pronunciation and developing your rhythm ! This will really tune your ear into the language and help you hear and distinguish the sounds which will in turn help you to reproduce them. It is a great idea to listen to short, level appropriate extracts whilst reading the transcript – this helps you hone in on the sounds of the words and then you can try to repeat each sentence and imitate these sounds and rhythms. Podcast Français Facile is a good website for this as you can listen to spoken passages (at a variety of levels) and follow the transcript at the same time.
Simply reading sentences out loud can be very beneficial to develop your rhythm and in particular, your intonation as you can fully focus on the way you are expressing yourself. This can also help you develop instincts with regards to sentence structure and word order by training your ear to identify what sounds and feels ‘right’. Essayez-le!


Astuce du moi! (avril 2017) – ‘Modelling’

Learning new structures can be quite daunting, at any level, especially when we hear the words ‘grammar’ and ‘rules’! Add to the mix all the exceptions to the rules and it can feel even more overwhelming. The repetition of ‘drilling’ a grammar point is effective as it can help embed the patterns but this is usually within quite a limited context. I find that ‘modelling’ structures is really effective as it allows you to see the structure in use and then to imitate it in order to say what you want to say. It is a great way to build confidence too as by imitating and manipulating an already formed phrase, you can be sure it will be fairly accurate.

For example, when practising the present tense, you may see:

J’adore aller en vacances avec ma famille. Je préfère aller à la meril fait chaud.

You can personalise the sentence by replacing the words in red to express what is true for you. For example:

J’adore aller en vacances avec mon mari. Je préfère aller à la campagneil ne fait pas trop chaud.

This approach can work for all tenses.

For more complex structures, and when perhaps you have a wider range of vocab, you can apply the same principle. For example:

Il va falloir oser poser des questions (my new favourite from a recent Advanced class!)

You could adapt the sentence to say :

Il va falloir apprendre à mieux gérer le stress (bringing together 2 recently studied structures)

Or you could even weave in a subjunctive:

Il va falloir qu’on apprenne à mieux gérer le stress

Modelling is not cheating! It is a fantastic way to ‘safely’ experiment, assimilate structures and develop your language. Essayez-le!