Sunday, October 3, 2021

Does group work ever work in M(F)L?


                                                     "Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere!"
                                                                                                                                                           Dylan William

When I was completing my Certificate in Evidence-Informed Practice Programme through Chartered College of Teaching one of the topics that was available to research in more depth was 'Does group work ever work?'. Even though it wasn't the topic I have chosen to research it has made me think about it in the context of my own domain. So, here are my own reflections on it.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2018) define collaborative learning as approach that “involves pupils working together on activities or learning tasks in a group small enough for everyone to participate on a collective task”. 

In the research it has been argued that working collaboratively can be either beneficial or of little worth (Slavin, 2010) and its benefits are not always consistent (Kirschner et al., 2018). For many teachers, whole class teaching and independent or pair work are still more preferred learning contexts in the classroom and group work is fairly infrequent (Baines et al., 2015). To the contrary, some research indicates that collaborative learning enables students to become more engaged in the learning process and William (2018) refers to research which shows that effective collaboration can double the speed of learning.

So, what is the role of group work in L2 classroom. In most language classrooms today, the oral proficiency and communicative ability are the main goals of language learning. If we consider that most L2 learners do not have frequent opportunities to engage in L2 conversations outside of the classroom group or pair activities can be a useful tool for maximizing authentic and meaningful interactions amongst our students. 

With the emphasis on second language acquisition being communicative competence (students being able to use L2 effectively within specific contexts) various strategies in language learning need to be applied, as well as linguistic, social and interpersonal skills. Interpersonal communication is considered more effective in increasing one's communicative ability than merely focussing on learning the rules of grammar (Krashen & Terrel, 1983).

In my own classroom, the success and impact of group work on students' learning has been varied, especially in classes with mixed range of abilities at KS3. I have observed scenarios where during the group work, some of my students take a back seat whilst other more confident or able students took the lead at times resulting in treating the quiet, less confident learners unkindly - an occurrence which Campbell and Bokhove refer to as 'tall poppies' syndrome (2019) .

Often, I have wondered whether the group work activity has made a beneficial impact on all of my learners or whether they would have learnt and gained more having completed the task individually. If we take into consideration the cognitive load theory, especially if the complexity of the activity increases, the hive mind of the group can work together to solve the task i.e more complex translation. However, the context of the class needs to be taken into account - students having belief in their ability that they can complete/solve the task, learners working as a group not just in a group and that making the group effort will pay off.
The recent online learning enabled me to observe group work more easily. When using break out rooms (students were working on a translation task), I have noticed some learners do divide up the tasks between themselves quickly and complete the work quickly but essentially work independently, whereas some learners who I know are friends simply ignored each other and did not collaborate at all. 

Combatting the learners who dominate or sit back can be a challenge in any classroom, especially during group work. Learners need a reason to work together, not just simply being told to work together (Slavin, 2010). Structured team learning with the team's success depending on individual learning and accountability combined with a system of rewards is what he suggests. The teacher needs to understand their groups and know which rewards will motivate them, this will differ based on the age and maturity of the learners.

In my own context, the most success I have had using collaborative learning, has been during my GCSE oral lessons - during group talk.
To get to the stage where every student in the class feels confident enough to contribute equally, firstly students have to be prepared for the task. It takes considerable amount of time to drill core structures and model how to manipulate these language structures. The use of guided practice, modelled examples and scaffolded tasks - such as picture task scaffolds (examples available on my resource page) is vital to ensure students have the knowledge to conduct the work successfully and spontaneously. They need to practise a lot!
Creating a classroom environment where students feel safe and supported is essential. Students will make mistakes and that is OK during the practice. I also try to avoid over correction at this stage, but pay close attention to the common mistakes that become apparent whilst I am circulating the classroom, listening and supporting where I need to. 
These common mistakes are consequently addressed on whole class basis to avoid learners embedding the application of language incorrectly. 
Less confident students are allowed to have a support sheet with them which is gradually removed as students become more confident and fluent in their responses. The key focus is on everybody speaking and taking part, working as a group. All group members supporting each other and helping a member of the group when they get 'stuck'. 
I have observed a great deal of maturity amongst my GCSE students and believe that collaborative work has enabled them to learn from each other and improved their linguistic competence and self-efficacy.

Examples of scaffolds for group talk - GCSE:
*Shared by another colleague, not my own resource

inspired by Gianfranco Conti - adapted to German

The recent webinar by Greg Horton for Linguascope on group talk at KS3 level - a successful project he run a few years ago,  has made me think about how I could make it work better for my younger learners. As he mentioned sometimes it doesn't work but when it works, it is extremely motivating and rewarding for both the teacher and the students.

      Example of group talk resource by Greg Horton

Whether our focus is on the design of the curriculum or the delivery of a lesson, it seems obvious that there is a place for group work within M(F)L curriculum, however, it is down to us - teachers to ensure that the tasks given to groups are extensively processed and that we take time to get to know the groups of our learners and their dynamic first. Considered choices about the groups of learners we select to work collaboratively and our understanding of their composition will aid completion of the task.

Constructive critique and new ideas are always welcome.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Reading and literacy in Languages


                                                                         We, all are teachers of literacy ... 

Developing reading is one of the key skills students need to tackle in order to access knowledge and information. 

 So, how are you teaching it in your lesson?

In M(F)L classroom when teaching an international language, learners often approach reading texts in another language with the phonics of their first language (anglicised phonics) in mind. Having said that, teaching phonics - grapheme and phoneme links (sound and spelling links)  is therefore vital to ensure they can access the language and the text. Using a variety of reading texts can be highly beneficial in developing students' comprehension skills in L2 and combined with effective deconstruction of these texts via carefully structured activities, it should maximise their ability to manipulate the language in order to enhance their own speaking and writing in the TL. 
This doesn't mean that we always have to use authentic materials as we might want to create our own texts or adapt authentic materials that we have sourced online or through our travels thus enabling our students to access them and establish they are suitable for their stage of learning (novice vs expert) - securing at least 95% comprehensible input (ideally 98%).

                *image google

If we are teaching, modelling and practising a specific language structure or syntax i.e opinions we may want to create a text or a number of texts - narrow reading texts à la Gianfranco Conti which would contain a selection of different examples of opinion phrases and structures taking into account certain grammatical rules such as the word order (German).

To make reading in TL most effective, like with the receptive skill of listening, it is important to deliberately plan pre-reading activities such as teaching specific vocabulary chunks, grammatical structures and activating prior knowledge (schemas) via retrieval or brainstorming chunks around a particular topic.
It is also crucial that students get used to reading texts aloud from the start of their language journey using activities such as 'echo reading', 'paired dictation' or reading along.
Research has also shown that reading aloud increases learning as it is an example of the Production Effect, which is caused by producing something with the new information. In the case of learning a new language producing the (new) sounds thus utilising a combination of 3 processes: visual (seeing the words), active (not being passive during the event) and self-referential ( 'I said it.') @innerdrive - case study #34

Reading for information:

When reading an extended text, students need to have opportunities to process the text and practice strategies using some 'warm up' activities such as:
  • Reading the text aloud - breaking down the words and sounds - decoding and contextualising of vocabulary (this also supports listening)
  • Look for and underline/ highlight cognates
  • Look for and underline/highlight vocabulary students know
  • Look for specific word groups (nouns, verbs, adjectives...) or grammatical structures (tenses, negatives, opinions...)
  • Skim and scan for further clues - tone, title, pictures, general ideas, gist, heading, the purpose of the paragraph etc.
  • inferring meaning of unfamiliar words through context
Further activities that can be employed to explore students' comprehension of the text more extensively could be:
  • multiple choice questions
  • true/false/not in text questions
  • 'who' questions
  • cloze exercises
  • find synonyms
  • order the pictures
  • translations
One of the most effective concepts that I have come across during my teaching career is 'narrow reading' - an idea that I have encountered first time whilst reading Gianfranco Conti's posts  on reading instruction on his Language Gym website where he writes extensively about it + many other posts on developing reading skills. It requires students (novice and intermediate) to read 3-6 short paragraphs on the same topic - each paragraph  containing similar chunks and structures that have been previously taught thus enabling students to have a significant exposure to chunks and syntax without being too repetitive. 
His E.P.I. methodology has been a 'game changer' in my teaching!

                                                                Example of narrow reading texts in German (C.Dymond)

         Spot the difference task (template FloRence)


                                                                              Spot the missing task (template FloRence)


In my lessons, after the reading activity we consolidate the new structures that have been taught, students review what they have learnt and what they have struggled with in order to close the gaps in their knowledge - feedback driven metacognition.
Through the E.P.I. - RAM and LAM students then progress to guided and independent oral and written production phase.

Reading for pleasure:

It is also very important to nurture students' love of reading through reading for pleasure. There are nowadays numerous websites and platforms that provide authentic texts as well as adapted known stories such as fairy tales or other adapted materials. Some examples are below.
  • The Fable Cottage - provides bilingual tales for language learners in 5 languages - text, audio and video. Some tales are free and some require subscription. 
                                                                         Project inspired by Chloe Butler via Facebook

Other activities could be  - pop corn reading or 3-2-1 activity - i.e. find 3 new words/phrases, 2 different tenses, 1 question - but the choices can be easily adapted to a specific focus.
If you are interested in developing literacy in your department, Adam Lamb (@senorcordero ) wrote an interesting post 'Literacy in MFL - Reading' on the topic which is looking at deploying Alex Quigley's 7 strategies to explore unfamiliar words focusing on morphology, word families, etymology, spelling, multiple meanings, synonyms and antonyms, and context with specific examples in Spanish.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

New academic year - Routines and expectations (part 2)


Establishing clear routines and expectations is one of the most important steps all teachers, regardless whether they are new to the teaching profession or experienced, need to get right from the start of each academic year. They are everything in teaching.

If you are a new teacher joining a school, it is essential that you also find out what the whole-school routines expected of students are and stick to them as closely as possible, so you can lean on the community routines and reinforce them.*

'Routines establish efficient and effective processes that prevent time being wasted. They also create a culture that builds momentum and compliance. Routines should be as ubiquitous and consistent as possible. Classroom routines are worth drilling to perfection!' (Adam Robbins, Middle Leadership Mastery)


The routines and expectations listed below are based and adapted from Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion 2.0 and Adam Robbins's Middle Leadership Mastery. Both of these books provide clear and useful guidance for creating a classroom culture of high expectations and the routines are only some of the 62 techniques described in Lemov's book. For further expert advice on creating a positive and successful classroom culture, please read Tom Bennet's book 'Running the room' (referenced below).

Resource: Download here