What is MPF?
Thinking about how to teach new vocabulary or grammar to students more effectively? Looking for ways to help students understand and use English more successfully? In this post, we’ll be looking at an essential concept to have in mind when choosing the best techniques to teach and clarify English expressions and grammatical structures, so you know what to teach language learners, from beginners to advanced levels.
MPF is an abbreviation frequently used in teacher training or TEFL courses, such as the CELTA. It stands for Meaning, Pronunciation and Form, the three features of a specific language item (vocabulary or grammar) that are normally analysed and taught by teachers. Some professionals refer to MPFA (including Appropriacy), or MUPF (including Use).
The rationale behind it is that a student needs to be familiar with these three aspects in order to be able to use a new word or grammar structure. Therefore, it is important that the teacher address the three of them in their lessons, in order to help students communicate their ideas accurately and clearly and prevent potential problems.
If students fail to grasp meaning, chances are they will not be able to communicate the message they want (e.g. using the structure to be used to to refer to present habits). Problems with pronunciation might lead to misunderstandings by their interlocutors (e.g. saying goat instead of coat, or sink instead of think). Finally, misuse of the form may lead to inaccuracies with impact on communication ranging from minimal (e.g. “I’m student”) to severe breakdown.
Meaning refers to what the word, expression or grammar structure expresses. When it comes to vocabulary, monolingual dictionaries are a reliable source of meaning (although such definitions might not be simple enough to clarify meaning, especially to beginner or elementary learners).
Stating the meaning of grammar structures can be a bit more challenging, but good grammar books (and even some course books) usually describe their meaning to good effect. One way of expressing meaning of grammar structures is describing what they are used for in the context given (e.g. In this context, the second conditional is used to describe the hypothetical consequence of an event the speaker sees as unlikely to happen).
Pronunciation refers to aspects of phonology related to individual sounds (phonemes), sounds at word level (e.g. word stress), or in connected speech (e.g. intonation and sentence stress).
In the past, a lot of English teaching usually focussed on helping students achieve “native-like” pronunciation, or imitate a certain accent or variety of English. However, goals having been shifting towards helping students achieve intelligibility in an international context, where English is used as a lingua franca (ELF).
If you want to know more on pronunciation, check our following posts:
Form basically refers to how a meaning is written or spoken. When it comes to learning new words, it is important for students to know their spelling, plural form (if applicable), collocations and its grammatical behavior, among other things. Regarding grammar, it is useful for students to understand how that particular structured is formed, the order in which its components appear, how negative statements and questions are formed, as well as variations that occur because of changes in the subject or the time reference.
Course books tended to be really form-focussed in the past, and a number of materials available to teachers are clearly designed to help them focus on the form of words and grammar. Therefore, finding form-related explanations and activities tends to be quite straightforward. However, excessive focus on learning aspects of form during practice may lead to lack of fluency, so it is a good idea to allow opportunities for fluency-focussed practice of the lexis or grammar you are teaching.
If you want to know more about practice, click here for one of our videos.
Examples of MPF Analysis:
Click on the image below to see a sample of analysis of MPF of two lexical items and one grammar item.
You can also click and download the editable PDF file below to use when planning your own lessons.
Tips to use MPF to teach more effectively:
1. Make sure you teach and check understanding of meaning before you move on to pronunciation and form.
If students are not able to grasp the meaning of the target language, chances are the work on form and pronunciation will be rather mechanical and meaningless. Clarifying and checking understanding of meaning first allows students to make sense of the language item before attempting to use it accurately.
If you want to know more about checking understanding, check this video on CCQs.
2. Don’t punish yourself if you end up doing MFP.
Some teacher trainers are really strict when it comes to the order in which the three aspects should be taught, arguing for MPF or MFP. Others tend to be more flexible, accepting both variations. What everyone agrees on is that meaning should come first (as we’ve mentioned above).
As long as learners understand what they use the words or grammar for before they begin to try to understand how they are formed or pronounced, chances are they’ll be able to understand and use the target language.
3. Careful not to overemphasise form.
Most of the early methods and approaches to teaching languages tended to see language as a structure that should be understood, memorised and replicated. Therefore, we have inherited a long tradition of form-focussed teaching.
The development of other ways to teach language, especially the Communicative Approach and Task-Based Learning have changed that to some extent, but we do still see a lot of teaching that places grammar (and form) as the end-goal of teaching.
Even though we do believe that it is important to help students learn and use grammatical utterances and sentences, the chances of their being able to do so might be increased if the learning is meaningful, or if they are aware of the contexts, reasons and meanings they convey when they use a certain word or structure.
4. Decide how far into MPF you should go based on your group profile and lesson aims.
We teach words and grammar at different points in the lesson. When a lexical set (a group of words/expressions) or a grammatical structure are the main aim of our lesson, it is only natural that we delve a little deeper into aspects of meaning, pronunciation and form.
However, when pre-teaching vocabulary before a listening or reading activity, when dealing with students’ doubts and emergent language, or when providing feedback on language and error correction, we might touch upon MPF more superficially by, for example, using a technique such as ECDB.
We’ll be posting about ECDB pretty soon, so subscribe to our blog to be notified when we do so. It’s free!
5. When using guided discovery, it can be helpful to create three different tasks: one for meaning, one for pronunciation and one for form.
Guided discovery is a great way to allow students to work out the important aspects of the language on their own, which can increase motivation and sense of achievement.
Having three separate tasks for each of the three dimensions (MPF) can be helpful inasmuch as they allow students to work out one thing at a time in an autonomous manner.
I hope this was useful to help you plan your vocabulary and/or grammar lessons. Let us know in the comments how you take MPF into consideration when teaching, or if you need help with identifying MPF of any particular language.
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