MFL – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 5)

May 17, 2020 | Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

The focus of this post is how we work with students who have reading difficulties when we are teaching modern foreign languages (MFL).

What strategies would you suggest regarding teaching MFL?

The principles of explicit teaching are as applicable in MFL as they are anywhere else. Much time is wasted, and much student motivation and curiosity is eroded, when our teaching communications are unclear or ambiguous.

Although we have both studied and speak other languages, we do not teach in this field. Here are some tips via our friend and colleague Barry Smith (@BarryNSmith79), whose use of explicit instruction in MFL is sans pareil.

In general terms, students need to read a lot in a foreign language. This is because they need to spend time working with words, and making links between the spoken and written forms of the language. Many weaker readers tend to rely on context and picture clues, rather than decoding – so reduce pictorial content and require them to find meaning through language.


When teaching students to become proficient in working with written text, Barry suggests the mnemonic CUDDLES:

C – Count the number of letters in the word. This forces them to pay close attention, as they have to focus on every letter.

U – Underline vowel combinations, so that students begin to recognise common patterns.

D – Double underline double letters, so that these potential spelling errors are highlighted immediately.

D – Dot under the ‘silent letters’, to remind students of the sound sequence in the word and how this relates to its spelling.

L – Links between words should be emphasised by drawing a link between them, for example for liaisons in French.

E – Emphasise accent marks by making them extra big. These small marks are otherwise easy to miss but can have a profound impact on accuracy and understanding.

S – Story – stories are powerful and natural ways for students to remember learning. Embed new vocabulary within stories, and use stories to make details of spelling, grammar or usage memorable. Where stories aren’t practical, make use of mnemonics. These approaches create or augment schema to integrate new knowledge into existing knowledge.


This process may seem overly prescriptive and heavily focused on the mechanics of written language, but it is actually pre-empting the most common errors that students are likely to make. Increasing the success of students builds confidence and motivation, while at the same time they are learning to be increasingly careful readers. One of the most important roles of the teacher is to anticipate and pre-empt likely errors, misconceptions and confusions.

Use multiple examples of sound-spelling patterns in words, so that students become fluent at recognising them. In French, for example lapin, jardin, sapin, etc follow a distinct pattern of spelling and pronunciation. By placing a dot under ‘n’ at the end of each example word above, students are repeatedly reminded of the written form and the pronunciation.

Accents and apostrophes are your friends – consider the phrase je m’appelle’. This actually a contracted form of ‘je me appelle’. Have students say the uncontracted form quickly and repeatedly until it becomes apparent that the words elide in normal speech.

Studying the etymology of words wherever possible is also helpful. Each word has its own history and that becomes a story in itself. Stories are one of the principal ways that we remember and organise knowledge.

Teaching explanations of new vocabulary should be both precise and concise. Have your explanations prepared: remember the EMU mnemonic – etymology, morphology, and usage.


Give students frequent opportunities to read out loud but be sensitive to the needs of weaker readers: have them read in pairs, small groups or individually to you as a teacher rather than to the whole class (unless they want to).

Barry recommends that when given a new text to read, students should number every line, and place a ruler under the line as they read. This forces them to pay close attention and makes it easier for them to follow the teacher’s directions as they read.

You may find this blog post by Jessica Lund at Michaela Community School useful as it demonstrates many of these principles in action.

Tip: Be very precise with students about correct pronunciation as this will also aid their reading and spelling.

Next up: Barriers to Success


You may also be interested in:

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?

Reading is Knowledge

Does Phonics Help or Hinder Comprehension?

Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (Part 1)


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