Students were intimidated by gap-fill exercises as they felt that they had to know the whole Corpus of the English language. They felt that they ‘could not argue’ their answer as they would in a discursive essay. Also, if they did not know the answer, they would panic and ‘make it up’, without thinking about why they had made a certain word choice.

Gap-fill exercises similar to the ones for the exam were therefore used in each session to model the mental operations (see Step 3) required to complete this task.

  1. Initially, students were talked through each of the steps in teacher-led activities to make them become familiar with the process. This was repeated until the students needed minimal prompting and were confident in using lower order thinking skills (identifying, explaining, applying).
  2. Team games built around affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and phrasal verbs were created to reinforce the mental operations in a metaphorical way (implementing and analyzing) outside of exam-focused teaching
  3. Students were encouraged to build bridges between the different languages they knew and to develop their creative skills with mind maps as an alternative to memorizing rules and vocabulary lists (see representative images below)


Image of tree-based diagram, indicating terms associated with the English word 'buck'


Spider diagram showing terms associated with the English word 'two'







“What’s in a name?” Decoding in English language teaching

1. Bottleneck to learning

Language can be considered as a whole unit. In addition to the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), critical thinking and reasoning skills as well as the ability to refer back to past experiences and background knowledge are also important. In other words, there is a close interconnection and interaction between the cognitive and emotional aspects of language.

This case study is based on a course taught in the final year of a three-year degree in Languages and Modern Cultures; the module concerns English Language and Translation. The course is divided into three modules: 1) Translation; 2) Listening; 3) Reading and Use of English. The latter two modules are known as the lettorato inglese modules. That is, a language lab with a mother-tongue lecturer which runs for 20 weeks over two semesters. The emphasis is on practical language acquisition (hands-on/group work) rather than theoretical (grammar rules/lectures). The teaching style is informal to ensure that all students feel comfortable participating.

Each lesson lasts 2 hours and is repeated twice a week so as to widen participation. There is not a minimum requirement for attendance, in fact it is not at all compulsory to attend lessons and students from other departments as well as members of the public can participate in classroom activities. Decoding was used in the Reading and Use of English module, mainly during classroom activities.

In this course, students are encouraged to move away from the school-based approach of memorising sets of rules and endless vocabulary lists. Instead they are supported in developing a more intuitive and even playful approach to language acquisition which contextualises their learning in a more holistic way. For example, after modelling and practicing new forms, students are asked to take part in role-plays or discussions which use the target language either in a more natural way or at least in a way that feels more real to them.

It is worth mentioning that rather than viewing all of the courses they study as individual or separate units, students are required to view them synergistically. For example, a word learnt in a literature class can be recognised and understood in a newspaper article, for example, and eventually used in a conversation. This nurtures a certain idea of ‘ownership’ whereby language becomes a part of the person and their cultural identity/heritage (transition from the singular to the global).  In fact, participating in speaking activities not only consolidates previously acquired knowledge, but also improves communication skills which can later be transferred across the disciplines and into the workplace. A reluctance to do so therefore links in with referring back to past experiences (creating meaningful memories) and critical thinking skills (knowing when to use a word and its possible effects on the listener) mentioned earlier, thus coming full circle.

The final exam for Reading and Use of English module is the one which most students have difficulty passing at the first attempt. It assesses comprehension of a text through gap-fill exercises (multiple choice, word formation, cloze). Some of the language competencies assessed include knowledge of grammatical structures, collocations and vocabulary.