More thoughts on the pros and cons of L1-L2 vs L2-L1 translation and communication

Following on from response on Twitter to from @spsmith45 @gianfrancocont9 and @lovelinkous.

An exercise I have tried recently at all sorts of different levels and called ‘Backs to the wall’ translation, for want of a better name.

Pick a text in the L2 and project it on the screen.  Have students sitting in pairs (a three works fine if you have an odd number) with one looking at the screen and the other with their ‘back to the wall’.  The one who can see the screen is forbidden to use any L2 (I know that will not be popular with all but bear with me!) but can do/say anything else at all.  He/she has to get the person who cannot see the screen to say exactly what is written there in the L2.

Once they have completed the task, the person who can see the screen reads the text back to the one who cannot in the L2 and they have to translate it back into the L1.

Something to use at the end of a unit of work to re-cap vocab and structures covered.  It uses some higher order thinking skills and gets away from translation always being written.

The return of translation – some thoughts in response to posts on frenchteacher and The Language Gym

It’s been fascinating to read the thoughts of Steve Smith ( and Gianfranco Conti ( 

Here is a response, drawing on my own personal experience of the last twenty-three years’ teaching and my own education, in which I would like to suggest that the pendulum might be swinging back to a middle ground and that there could be an exciting opportunity to be seized to produce a synthesis of a communicative and a grammar/translation-based approach.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both Steve Smith’s and Gianfranco Conti’s thoughts on the place of translation in the Modern Languages classroom.
I am fascinated by what seems like an ideological divide, years old now but reopened by the reintroduction of translation in GCSE.  One’s own educational and training background obviously have a strong influence on one’s views here but I wonder whether this reintroduction might not mark the opportunity for a positive new ‘synthèse’ from the ‘thèse’ of ‘traditional’, grammar-based, translation-focused teaching and the ‘antithèse’ of the communicative approach.
My own experience straddles the two ‘camps’, if such things can be said to exist, as I did A-Levels, at a then very traditional school, in 1987, probably the last year, if memory serves, of a fairly unchanged syllabus (four literary set texts with answers all in English, translation both ways, oral exam a fairly unstructured, generalised chat) and started teaching in 1992.  I remember feeling as though the world had been turned upside down in the intervening years.  My initial reaction (for example, to University of York-produced text books such as ‘¡Vaya!, which seemed to reject explicit grammar teaching entirely) was one of bewilderment, if not downright hostility.  This was so different from everything about the way that I had learnt and was also far-removed from everything that had made me enjoy learning languages (the textbook I had learnt my Spanish from at school – Living Spanish – was probably full of outdated clichés but the magic of the otherness of Spain was one of the things that captivated me – ‘España es diferente’ – whereas some of the textbooks I found myself using in the early ’90s seemed to go out of their way to make Spain seem just like England, presumably in a bid to make pupils feel as though this could be relevant to them).  I seriously considered leaving teaching on a number of occasions in my twenties, telling myself that if I had been a pupil in the ’90s, I certainly wouldn’t have gone on to read Modern Languages at university, perhaps would not even have taken French and Spanish at A-Level.  Fortunately, for me at least if not for my pupils, I stayed and gradually began to get used to some of the benefits of the communicative approach.  When contemporaries of the ‘it’s not like the old days’ brigade (or even occasionally teenagers) ask me whether exams are easier now than they used to be, I feel that I can answer truthfully and say that they are neither easier nor more difficult – just different in what they test.
All of which brings us back to translation and the question, amongst other things, of whether it bores pupils.  Steve Smith’s 20 ways.. for each of L1-L2 and L2- L1 translation ( and don’t seem to me at all boring.  In my now twenty plus years’ experience, what bores pupils is lack of variety.  Most reasonably able pupils do want to understand the mechanics – and I still hold to the view that nothing clarifies and ingrains them more precisely than translation – of the subject.  I don’t think we should deny this wish to understand.  We wouldn’t dream of doing it in other subjects.  Yet, the heavy diet of translation I experienced at school, to the exclusion, to some extent, of listening and reading and, to a large extent, of speaking lacked variety, in the same way that I feel an exclusively communicative approach, treating second language-learning as the same entirely natural process by which we learnt our mother tongue when in practice the limitations of the classroom and the age difference mean that it cannot be so, also lacks variety and produces, in my opinion, too often a woolly understanding.  Might the pendulum not be about to swing back to a middle ground where Modern Languages teaching might synthesise the best of both worlds?  The plummeting entries at A-Level show, if nothing else, that the approach of the last twenty-five years has not enthused sufficient numbers of young people to continue the study of languages in the Sixth Form and beyond and, if this situation continues apace, there may not be enough people around to teach Modern Languages in schools in another twenty-five years, whatever approach they wish to take to the subject.

Scaffolded verb drilling for Year 8 French

Realising, after marking end-of- year exams, that even the brightest in my Year 8 class could do with some more stages of support to build up to mastering  their grasp of essential tenses (présent, passé compsé, futur proche), I thought I would create some drills to use as a re-cap at the start of lessons in the remainder of term, over the course of next year with new Year 8 classes and as a refresher with Year 9.

On the Google Doc below there are two sets of three sentences (one each for the verbs prendre and voir).  Each set has a simple sentence wi hich uses one of the three key tenses.

They could be used front of class or individually, as a written exercise or orally.  As a re-cap, at the end of the lesson or at the star of the next lesson, the exercises could be done in reverse order.  If working individually, less confident pupils could start from the beginning and work forward, with the most able starting at the end and moving backwards to check or get more support.

Please feel free to comment, make suggestions below or on the Google Doc or to swap similar ideas if you like the basic structure.

Many thanks to Dr Gianfranco Conti @gianfrancocont9 whose excellent blog ‘The Language Gym’ gave me the ideas for this.

Mi amigo imaginario español

Idea for an on-going creative project for secondary school pupils learning a foreign language

To try to avoid the limitations of writing just about their own lives, I am going to try to get my classes to invent an imaginary friend next year.

I think you could start from almost the very beginning with name and basic personal information.

Over time (a whole school year or longer if you can persuade colleagues to buy into it), a detailed profile of the imaginary friend could be built up covering any topic (their family, friends, hobbies, holidays, school etc.)

Could be used in first person (i.e. writing as the imaginary friend) to use a wider variety of vocabulary – imaginary friends can have hobbies, pets, relatives etc. that you don’t.  Writing in the third person could allow for practice of simple manipulation of language.


Could write a letter to the imaginary friend who could then write one back.

Speaking and listening

Telling a partner about the friend in pair or group work could be an imaginative speaking exercise with  the partner possibly making notes.  Recording a piece about the friend and swapping audio files with a partner might be another option.