Sunday, July 3, 2022

Teaching grammar implicitly vs explicitly

 The discussion about what is the best approach when teaching grammar in MFL is always a 'hot seat' topic and at times many of us will have to agree to disagree as we all have our own views and experiences which on a practical level, sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with the research into SLA - each learner and school context is unique therefore different approaches will be more suitable for the diversity of these contexts.  

In this post, I would like to discuss the differing points of view...

I believe that the purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate in it. Many times, students tell me: ' I would love to study German in the college, but I just want to learn to speak it well so I can use it with my other STEM subjects, I don't want to analyse literature and learn Grammar.' However, in the practice, for many teachers and leaders in the schools, this is not as straightforward as it might seem, especially with the pressures of delivering results and achieving good grades.

Effective grammar teaching is essential for successful language learning, and it is important to build in time to our SoW to teach grammar well from the start. This can be rather difficult within the time constraints of the timetable and the lesson. 

Ergo, teaching of Grammar can take a variety of forms such as:

Lexicogrammar: a level of linguistic structure where lexis (vocabulary and grammar or syntax) combine into one, they are not seen as independent but rather mutually dependent, with one level interfacing with the other (Sardhina, 2019). This is the approach observed in Conti's E.P.I. methodology.
Another approach which is more traditional, similar to the NCELP approach, is explicit grammar teaching - a teaching method that takes form as the centre, it puts the emphasis on purposefully learning grammatical rules so they can be used accurately and effectively as a language ingredient.
Rather than allowing students to develop grammatical awareness through application of structures or letting them to simply work out correct answers to fill in the gaps in a grammar exercise through the context, students should be taught and should learn to correctly recognise and reproduce grammar structures through their understanding of how the principles of these structures work. However, teaching it explicitly will not suit all our learners.
                 pixabay image

To embed grammar fully into students LTM, it has to be practised extensively via all four skills. From personal experience, this often happens via the reading and writing, but not as much through the listening and speaking skill. This is especially important, in a skill such as listening, where students need to be able to recognise grammatical patterns in a sentence within a speech and arrange them within the context to aid not only comprehension but also acquisition of the new structure or chunk. It is also rather common to observe lesser grammatical accuracy in spoken language than in written language.

With my Academy context in mind, this is how we approach grammar in our classrooms:

When I started to teach, some 17 years ago, my approach to grammar teaching was explicit. This is how I was taught grammar myself, as a student. On a personal level, I have to admit, it suited me as I was an academic student and I needed to understand how the language works and links, plus I had the discipline to memorise the patterns and study beyond the walls of the classroom. This was the way I was taught to teach it during my PGCE course, and it was also confirmed through the observations of my mentors and colleagues.

On reflection, it is fair to say that this approach has worked for small proportion of my most academic students. 
Some researchers (Ullman, 2006 in Smith&Conti, Memory, 2021) believe that vocabulary and grammar are processed differently. Vocabulary being stored in declarative memory, whereas grammar such as i.e., verb endings, in procedural memory
From the research, it is known that procedural memory takes longer to establish and even though our students may be able to recite verb paradigms and may appear to know/explain the rules from their declarative memory, I have observed too many times that they actually could not use it effectively or consistently from their procedural memory. 
Too often, I have seen students completing grammar exercises competently during lesson practice (completing their grammar worksheets correctly), thinking they have 'got it', only to find out when completing an independent piece of work, they have failed to apply their verb endings, tenses, or word order correctly! They could not transfer their declarative knowledge into their procedural knowledge.

As a teacher, I never see myself as a 'finished product'! In the languages community, there is so much knowledge and good practice shared so generously which often accounts for one of the best CPDs available out there!
I learn and develop myself continuously, so when I came across the lexicogrammar approach, I was ready to learn and try it to see what impact it would have on my students' outcomes.

As many colleagues who follow this methodology, we introduce the new language via Sentence Builders which are essentially chunks of language (Roshenshine's Principles of Instruction: Principle 2). 
                                                                                               example of a sentence builder
These chunks of language are extensively practised during the Modelling/Awareness raising/ Receptive processing and Structured production phase (I wrote separate posts on these phases in my blog, so have a look for more detail, I have linked them) of the M.A.R.S.E.A.R.S. sequence. During the structured production phase, we start looking at patterns more closely, this is referred to by G. Conti as Pop-up Grammar. For example, our students learn the phrase 'ich möchte' (I would like) in year 7 when are we talking about ordering food in a café or a restaurant, however, the conditional is not taught explicitly until year 9.
I often find, that at this stage (sometimes even earlier, depending on class's attainment) students start making observations and asking questions themselves, such as the differences in word order, verb endings or genders. 
Only after this phase, during the Expansion stage, are the structures learnt in greater depth and practised with the new and old vocabulary; we work on grammar explicitly and focus on generative processing and students expand to language patterns. We use less scaffolding (SB) and encourage our students to think deeply.

Having said that, I would not claim that there is a specific time when we should move onto explicit teaching of grammar. As mentioned at the start of this post, each context and class is different. I have had classes, where I have been teaching grammar explicitly very early on and this was to accommodate my students' desire for wanting to know the 'why' and 'how'. I firmly believe in adaptive teaching and there definitely is not a 'one fits all' approach. 
It is fantastic to get inspiration from other colleagues and to try different things, however, we have to bear in mind our own unique context and therefore a curriculum that is well-designed, thought through and sequenced is crucial. For our learners to embed grammatical structures in their LTM, they need to be interleaved throughout and students need to encounter them numerous times in different contexts.

For more on the curriculum and lesson sequencing see the CURRICULUM page on my blog or if your school subscribes to National College, you can watch my session on Secondary Modern Languages: Lesson-to-Lesson Sequencing and Adaptive Short-term Planning in Line with Teachers' Standards.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

On the journey to fluency and spontaneity


Nobody could claim to have come up with an ideal method of teaching MFL. Many modern languages classrooms may believe in communicative language teaching, a broad functional approach based on the recognition that students need to develop their ability to communicate in the target language and not just possess a passive knowledge of vocabulary, structures, and grammatical rules (Maxwell, 2019).

However, there are some methods or approaches, if you like, which work better than others and they are often a combination of methods working in symbiosis in the classroom's unique context as each classroom, department and school is different.

My main goal as a teacher and linguist is to enable all my learners to experience success in language learning, to make learning a language accessible for all children and to build their confidence and self-efficacy. Over the years of my teaching, I came to realise that when my students claim whether they can or cannot ‘do’ German, they are really implying whether they can or cannot speak it.

            Pixabay image

So, what is spontaneity and fluency? How do we define them?

Fluency means speaking easily, naturally, reasonably quickly, without having to pause a lot. It is 'the ability to link units of speech together with facility and without strain or inappropriate slowness or undue hesitation' (Hedge, 2000). The speech of learners who are not fluent is characterised by ' frequent pauses, repetitions, and self-corrections' (Hedge, 1993).

Spontaneous speaking is unscripted speech which either initiates or responds to a speech. It is the learner's ability to perform and respond to conversation without planning their responses or speech. 
To become a more fluent speaker is an important goal for a majority of language learners, so it is our role as teachers to enable our students to develop fluency and spontaneity in their speaking.

How can we support our learners in developing their speaking fluency?

The accuracy of the language can be affected as learners increase their fluency. Accuracy necessitates knowledge of 'pronunciation, vocabulary, word formation, grammatical structure, sentence structure and linguistic semantics.' (Hedge, 2000). 
These two often lie on opposing sides of the weighing scales: as one goes up the other goes down. 
I have observed that some of my learners who become increasingly more fluent in their speech are less accurate in their grammar as they pay more attention to the meaning instead of to perfectly grammatically accurate utterance/speech, thus increasing the speed of their speech and decreasing hesitation and pauses. 
I believe, we should encourage our students not to worry about making mistakes in circumstances where spontaneous and fluent speech is more important than grammatically perfect speech. We should manifest self-control when correcting our students during tasks that are created to promote speech fluency.

We know that fluency improves when language knowledge becomes 'automized' (Thornbury, 1999), when the learner can produce the language without consciously thinking about it. The process has become automatic
One way we can support our students in this process, is to teach them 'chunks' (idiomatic phrases) of language, such as ' there is, on the other hand, in my opinion etc.' - lexico-grammatical approach (Conti, 2019) where building blocks of language learning and communication are words and words combinations. 
These already 'pre-made' phrases are then stored in our brain as whole and can be retrieved relatively quickly and effortlessly thus reducing hesitation and increasing the speed and fluency of the speech.
In our department, we use sentence builders to introduce new language. Our students learn pre-made chunks first, which they later, after a lot of deliberate practice and retrieval practice via EPI sequence (Conti), independently manipulate for their own output.

Planning is crucial. 
Teaching and modelling of the chunks, automatic retrieval of lexical items, deliberate practice, LAM/RAM tasks planning. 
Being clear about the focus of the task: pronunciation, grammatical accuracy, syntax, fluency, spontaneity, complexity...?

We use the same type of tasks repeatedly (task repetition). This is beneficial in two ways: it cuts down on time wasted in terms of giving instructions and explaining the tasks and it also improves fluency (Bygate, 2015, Conti, 2019). The speaking tasks are sequenced from planned and structured (scaffolded) to unplanned (spontaneous) speaking practice. It is important to create an environment where learners feel safe and secure, and which reduces the anxiety of speaking (Conti, 2019).

The main focus of my teaching is to develop my students' communicative functions to develop their fluency in speaking.

My go to repetitive communicative tasks, I organise to develop greater fluency are:
Shared resource. Adapted from G.Conti
For more task ideas, see The Language Teacher Toolkit by S. Smith and G. Conti.

To become fluent in another language as we know, demands a lot of time and practice. We can try and re-create purposeful 'real life' activities in our classroom, however, the switch to 'real' fluency and spontaneity, considering the restrictions of the classroom setting, resources, and teaching time available, is not so easy to achieve by the time our students reach their GCSE examination. 
Fluency often requires full immersion in the language which can be achieved by staying in the country of the TL for a prolonged period of time. 
From personal experience, it is possible to develop fluency if the learner has a regular (I would say, almost daily) contact to a native speaker, which provides opportunities to communicate only in the TL, watch TV in TL and read in TL. It requires a lot of self-discipline and motivation
For some of our students, this level of fluency might be difficult to achieve and reach during the 5 years of language learning in the U.K. educational system. We have to be realistic as to what is achievable within the walls of our classrooms! We are not bad teachers if some of our learners struggle with fluency! Spontaneous and natural response is often one word answer and not an extended paragraph talk!

However, through our delivery, we can build students' confidence and self-efficacy, foster love of language learning and prepare our students for their further language studies at the college and university or just simply facilitate their joy of being able to converse in another language, thus enabling them to discover different ways of life and become a well-rounded global citizen.

As always, I would love to hear your views and opinions on the topic.


Sunday, May 15, 2022

Structured production and expansion phase (G. Conti E.P.I Methodology)

 For the past two years, my colleagues and I have been applying the E.P.I. Methodology designed by Dr. Gianfranco Conti which provides a detailed lesson progression sequence. As a modelling tool for presenting of the new target language chunks, we have been using sentence builders followed by a variety of tasks supporting learning and long-term retention of L2. 

I have already written more detailed posts on the M.A.R. phases of the sequence:

  • MODELLING - core chunks are presented and modelled in context through listening and reading aloud using 98% comprehensible input. Students are gaining familiarity with the new language.
  • AWARENESS RAISING - sensitises the students to the patterns/rules governing the target chunks formation and use. Grammar is recognised, but not taught explicitly. To read more about these two phase, please click here.
  • RECEPTIVE PROCESSING - practising of the core phrases until students are absolutely receptively confident before moving on to producing them. The more exposure students have to the chunks, the more likely they are to retain the language. Intensive recycling through flooded input, controlled input, thorough processing. To read more about this phase, please click here.       

Structured production stage is the S in the Conti MARS EARS lesson sequence. It follows the Modelling / Awareness raising and Receptive Processing phase of the sequence. During this phase, my students carry out a lot of highly structured and controlled output tasks which recycle every chunk from the sentence builder as well as older chunks learnt and acquired from previous lessons or units. 

  • STRUCTURED PRODUCTION - application of intensively scaffolded and highly controlled production practice (Pushed Output). More 'thinking' and cognitive load is introduced, making students think back to what they have learnt so they can start to use it, but still with support of the sentence builder. Pop-up Grammar is included.
  • EXPANSION - structures are learnt in greater depth and practised with old and new vocabulary. Explicit work on grammar and generative processing is introduced - students start to expand to language patterns. Less use of sentence builders, students are encouraged to really think! Interleaving is powerful here as we learn best through associative learning, by hooking the new to the old, by activating the prior knowledge. The core structures are practised with old and new vocabulary overtime through systematic recycling - some students might still need scaffolding. After plenty of semi-implicit practice, through deductive teaching or inductive learning, students learn the rules governing the target items in greater depth (i.e. verb paradigms etc.)
This is the stage when I work on weaning my students off the sentence builder! As G.Conti amplifies, this is extremely important phase which mustn't be neglected if we want to attain fluency and spontaneity. 

Activities that we use during this stage are:
  •        Mini WB activities (now include translations into German)
  •       Initial letters - rebuild the sentences in TL
  •             Dictations (running, delayed, mad)
  •             Mosaic translation
  •             Disappearing text translations
  •             Translation pyramid into TL
  •             Sentence chaos slides
  •             1 pen 1 dice (more difficult translations L1 to L2)
  •             More challenging narrow reading / listening or comprehension tasks
  •             Missing letter, gap fills, short translations, word recall, short writing - modelled - guided to independent practice
  •             No snakes no ladders
  •             Oral Ping Pong translations
  •             Battleships
  •             Dictogloss
  •             Find someone who...
  •             Guess who/where
  •             Noughts and crosses
For more ideas and activities, the Breaking the Sound Barrier book by Conti and Smith is a great resource and explains the rationale of this approach in great detail. You can also click on my resource page and you will be able to view some of these activities and download free templates which you can adapt to any language you teach.


Monday, April 18, 2022

Challenge - the underpinning principle!

 The underpinning principle of effective teaching is challenge!

Students rise or fall according to the level of expectation that we set for them, from the curriculum design, the culture and ethos we established in our classroom and the strategies we employed to ensure they meet these aspirational targets. We should not shy away from embracing struggle but provide scaffolding if necessary.

Each student brings with them varying degrees of knowledge, cultural experiences, and preconceptions. We need to ensure all students are challenged in their language learning. We, ourselves will be challenged to adopt the most effective teaching approaches and strategies as well.

Provision of challenge is a complex affair, it is long term, and it should be overreaching everything, it should run through everything, culture, strategies, routines, academic register, the language we use to communicate expectation to our students…

Challenge is defined as the provision of work which causes students to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle in a manner that allows them, overtime, to learn effectively and affords our students opportunities to develop the procedural knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, discuss rules of the language and develop automaticity as well as manipulate the language quickly and fluently.

                                    *pixabay image

In order to anchor high challenge, setting single and aspirational objectives whilst providing scaffolding so all students have opportunity to reach them is pivotal.
         Example of single and aspirational objective
The objective as set above allows students to be exposed to the language in context, offers more sophisticated structures, the focus on justification draws attention to a particular function of language and aligns with the GCSE specification. 
Language learning is functional and cumulative and it is highly likely that students have already encountered justified opinions in a different context, so they are building on their prior knowledge, thus modifying and extending their schemas in LTM, i.e. in German - using extended sentences (weil + WO) - all students are expected to listen/speak/read and write in TL effectively without limitations!

Strong and ambitious curriculum provides anchoring for challenge; dipping into GCSE work in year 7, 8 or 9, taking the expected knowledge base, concepts, skills … and teaching just beyond that as well as exposing students at an early stage to the most challenging concept of assessment guidelines will challenge students in their learning. It can be also very motivating for students, knowing that they are undertaking work which is above their expected level. 
However a caveat is needed. We must be careful to build in the rationale behind it: 
'I believe in you! I believe in your potential to aspire and achieve high! If we use our prior knowledge and skills that we have already acquired, if we demonstrate resilience and perseverance, there is a strong chance we succeed, your success and self-efficacy are important to me!' 
The need for our students to experience success is crucial. In order to ensure optimal learning outcomes, students need to obtain high success rate.(B. Rosenshine, Principles of instruction)

So, what does high challenge teaching look like in my classroom?

 An example of  a high-level, high-challenge reading activity may look like this:

This activity points students' attention to core vocabulary of places in town, but it also emphasises linguistic function (opinions and justification, comparisons) and encourages them to use their linguistic knowledge and skills. 

  • Retrieval Practice - Why? - boosts students' learning and strengthens their memory, makes forgetting less likely to occur. Click here to see examples.
  • Spacing it out - Why?- the benefits of effective spacing in SLA - SLA is reliant on the cumulative build up of knowledge and dependent on our students making connections between new content and prior learning. This is significant. 
  • Importance of environment - Why? - to allow our students to marvel at the excellence around them - What is it they aspire to? What does excellence look like?                                                                                                                      Showing the best work from the most successful students to demonstrate the high expectations we have of them. To show them what they are aiming for. To challenge them to draft/re-draft/edit/annotate/improve their own work. Click here to see examples.
  • Questioning - Why? - to elicit the process - the why and how not just the what?                                                 
         Why do we ask questions? 
  1. To retrieve information from memory to strengthen it.
  2. To test the understanding of a concept - grammatical structure, language function...
  3. To develop and deepen the understanding of a concept.
  4. To provide opportunities for output.
  5. To highlight links to prior learning.
  6. To foster similarities and differences between L1 and L2.  
  7. To give opportunities to respond to unprepared situations in L2.
  8. To give opportunities to practise - pronunciation, structures, skills and function.                                                                          More on questioning here.
While there are specific teaching strategies and techniques that we can employ to ensure that challenge is appropriate for all students at a given time, the concept itself is much more to do with our teaching approaches. We know our students, we know their strengths and weaknesses, we know where we need to push and where we need to adapt our teaching to support them all!
Too often, I see posts from colleagues asking for specific activities that provide/demonstrate challenge! However, I don't think it is that simple, each class, school and context is different and like scaffolding, challenge comes from knowing our students and from a curriculum design that demonstrates progression which in return provides challenge
Ofsted refers to a curriculum that provides 'ambition' for all. I, personally, don't know how I would define this 'ambition' or what this 'ambition' should look like... It is too abstract a concept; each one of us, each context might see ambition differently...
What I do know however, is whether my students are working and thinking hard and whether they are or are not making progress. This doesn't mean they are all perfect students and they are all on an upward trajectory. It is still a battle, but I still enjoy fighting it and welcome every little or bigger victory that comes with it.

James A Maxwell: Making every MFL lesson count (2019)
Shaun Allison & Andy Tharby: Making every lesson count (2017)

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Show Calling

 One of the six pedagogical principles of expert teaching is modelling, a research-informed strategy demonstrating to our students how to apply the essential knowledge and skills that they have acquired through our explanation to a variety of contexts. 

This can be achieved through admiring/ showing off work of other students. In Doug Lemov's book 'Teach like a Champion', this strategy is referred to as Show Call. Lemov describes it as a type of 'Cold Call' which calls for examples of written work to be displayed to the class. He states that champion teachers use this technique to maximise rigor and accountability as well as to draw attention to examples of excellence in student work.

In my practice, I use many examples of modelling, such as live modelling, de-construction, construction or co-construction of a model answer. I also regularly use comparison models and models of excellence created by students themselves. 
From my observations, my students are most likely to relate to a model of excellence which has been created by their peer. If this model sets the bar high, they often feel more inclined to have the self-belief that they can reproduce it.
Sharing models of excellence is an excellent way of presenting students with concrete examples of the success criteria or for analysing specific linguistic structures, when they are completing a set activity. 

To demonstrate this, an example of conversation that I would have with the students in the class could be as follows:
"Ok everyone, please look at how Harry is making use of subordinating conjunction in his 130-150 word writing task: ' Der Kuchen hat mir geschmeckt, obwohl er ziemlich ungesund war.' It is important to remember that subordinating conjunction will enhance our work and earn us more marks for range of language and accuracy. Could you give me other examples of subordinating conjunctions that we could use to enrich our writing? ... Olivia?" (Cold Call)

Show Call strategy is highly effective when I need to improve students' ability to manipulate and produce a specific aspect of language, i.e use of tenses, conjugation or a specific structure by drawing their attention to it. For this, I often use my visualiser to model students' work live and to highlight the specific aspect.
It is important to remember, when we are teaching in our classroom, our students are operating first and foremost from their working memory, which is extremely limited and gets overloaded easily, therefore using 'Show Call' helps to harness students' working memory.
In his book 'Memorable Teaching', Peps Mccrea elucidate on this: " If we want to control what our students learn, we've got to be intentional and specific about what they should be attending to."

The purpose of Show Call is to 'create a strong incentive to complete writing with quality and thoughtfulness by publicly showcasing and revising students writing - regardless of who volunteers to share.' (Lemov, Teach like a Champion 2.0)

This is just one example of how I model and explain new knowledge and skills that my students need to acquire. For more on modelling, see my previous post - Live modelling.

Examples of work used for Show Call - year 11

                                                 *Examples of work used for Show Call - year 9                                                                                              *Examples of work used for Show Call - year 7

*templates by Elena Díaz-20 keys.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Using Sentence Builders

 There is an increasing number of language teachers; me being one of them; using Sentence Builders (previously referred to as substitution tables - often used in English Language Acquisition), in their teaching practice. 

*H.E. Palmer defines a substitution table as "a process by which any model sentence may be multiplied indefinitely by substituting for any of its words or word-groups, including others of the same grammatical family and within certain semantic limits".

After reading quite extensively about them and about how to use them effectively to maximise my students' learning, I have started to use SB in my teaching practice about 2 years ago. 

Even though they are not something brand new, their application has been revolutionised by Dr. Gianfranco Conti and his E.P.I, L.A.M and R.A.M approach to language teaching - a broad functional approach based on the recognition that students need to develop their ability to communicate in TL and not just possess a passive knowledge of vocabulary, structure and grammatical rules. 

They are a fantastic way of teaching vocabulary in context, for structuring and organising essential knowledge to be learnt in an accessible way, for modelling how to construct sentences, for interleaving and recycling of old material as well as for 'seed planting' of linguistic items that you are planning to teach in future. For more detail see Gianfranco Conti's post on his Language Gym website here.

If  you are just starting to use them, there are some important aspects to consider, when creating a Sentence Builder (SB).

                                                                                           Picture 1

When creating a Sentence Builder, from personal experience, it is important to plan and chose structures that are high frequency structures designed for communicative purpose
Structures, which students can learn and are cognitively accessible - considering appropriate fonts, avoiding too many background colours as well as distractive pictures which could cause cognitive overload and split attention - this can be sometimes difficult as we like creating visually attractive resources. 
However, I have discovered that quite a few of my students get distracted by 'pretty' pictures and focus on them more than the essential knowledge, I want them to embed in their memory, therefore, my most recent SBs are streamlined and without a 'fuss' (Picture 1). This approach has been also applied in the Language Gym Sentence Builders resource books. (I am currently working on the German Sentence Builders Primary book adaptation.)
Please, note that, when I am referring to pictures, this is not a reference to dual coding which as a strategy can be used to support memory and learning and reduced cognitive load, i.e. instances when we can substitute word with a picture, but I am referring to resources where pictures are used purely for decorative purposes and cause distraction.

Sentence Builder is the spring board, which also provides the necessary scaffolding that students need for their learning and as per comprehensible input (Krashen's theory of language acquisition - language input that can be understood by listeners despite of them not understanding every single word and structures in it as long as it contains 98% CI), when teaching my students, I provide also the L1 translation in my SBs. As we work through the SB, L1 translation gets removed and students work with the SB without this scaffolding (Picture 3).
    Picture 2

How do I use Sentence Builders?

At the start of a unit, students are given their SB. The first step that students take is to annotate it to help them with the pronunciation of certain sounds and ultimately with the spelling of them (picture 2). 
In German, my students mostly struggle with the pronunciation/spelling of the -ie/-ei sound (pronouncing/spelling them wrong way round) and remembering to pronounce the -e sound at the end of the word. On my board, there is a constant visual reference to them as well.
          Picture 3

Once they have annotated their SB, we use it for Listening as Modelling (LAM), an instructional technique described in detail in the 'Breaking the sound barrier' book (Conti & Smith).
The activities we use just with the SB are:
  • I say/we say/you say - lots of modelling of pronunciation - quiet/loud/whisper/silly voices etc.
  • I start the word - students finish it.
  • I start the sentence - students finish it.
  • Break the flow
  • Reading aloud - first just chunks, I point to, later on students reading sentences they make themselves.
  • I read sentences in L1, students highlight on their SB in L2 (Picture 3).
  • MWB - translations L1 ⇆ L2 (words, chunks, sentences)
  • Delayed Dictation
  • Delayed Copying
  • Listening pyramids
  • Narrow Listening - gap fills
                                                                        Examples of activities we use, created by Charlotte, our Associate teacher - yr7

I would spend 1-2 lessons working just with the sentence builder, on the modelling/awareness raising stage of the MARS EARS sequence. Other activities for MARS would then follow in consecutive lessons. The entire sequence MARS EARS would take cca. 6-7 60 mins lessons.
So far, from personal experience, Sentence Builders like Knowledge Organisers or vocabulary lists, can be used effectively or ineffectively. This depends on the classroom teacher, how he or she applies them and understands the rationale behind them, they can be just a beautifully created sheet stuck in student's exercise book or a tool which supports student's learning and makes it more engaging and accessible.

Please, share in the comment section your ideas and thoughts on how you use SBs in your own practice. 

* source -

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Trying to increase your GCSE uptake? This is what we are trying...

 With the languages uptake in British schools and universities on the decline, what can we do to reverse the trend?

The British Council in its annual Language Trends England 2021 report found that more than half of primary school pupils and 40% of secondary school students didn't do any language learning during the first national lockdown and 20% didn't have any language education during the second lockdown!

With the government's ambitious target of 75% of students taking a language GCSE by 2022 and 90% by 2025 as a part of the English Baccalaureate and the falling trend, this seems to be highly unlikely to happen. The lack of language education during the Pandemic will inevitably impact the already decreasing uptake of languages at GCSE and A-Level even further!                   

                         *pixabay image

The entries for modern languages continue to fall. 
"Analysis of official figures by the Guardian shows that in schools in England, entries for language GCSEs have dropped by 41% since 2003, the last year that taking a modern foreign language in year 10 was compulsory. 
The position of German is particularly precarious, with only 36% of English secondary schools teaching it. Provisional German GCSE entries were down 66% on 2003 levels. 
Overall, just 5.8% of GCSE entries in England in summer 2020 were for MFL, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications. 
A-Level numbers also continue to dwindle: Ofqual figures show that provisional entries last year for MFL were down 17% from 2020 figures."

We, as many other secondary schools, are also fighting the battle of trying everything possible in order to increase the uptake of language GCSE. We believe that having the ability to communicate in another language, even at basic level, improves students understanding of other cultures, broadens their horizons and provides wider employment opportunities, 'particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.'*
To tackle the issue of languages...
  • being perceived as too difficult
  • learning them is too boring
  • can't see the relevance/won't need them
... we have redesigned our Curriculum and delivery method to make them more engaging, to give students the opportunities to succeed in their learning and to develop their self-efficacy. 
Like many other schools, we organise competitions, give out praise cards and certificates, pen pal exchanges, create little events and tasting sessions to bring cultural awareness in, as well as speak to our students and parents about the advantages that languages can bring to their personal and professional life during the Options Evening. 
During 'normal' times we run language trips which have always had a huge impact on our uptake and students' motivations to take languages further. The inability to run a trip abroad due to the current circumstances has had a huge affect on our uptake!

As a result, this year, I am trialling something different, an idea that has been inspired by my colleague (and my NQT mentor - a very long time since I have been an NQT) a science teacher. 
We have been talking about the issues of lower uptake of languages GCSE and he was telling me about his Science Aspire group for year 11 - a group of students he has targeted with the potential to achieve a grade 8/9 in their science GCSE, the programme he has created for them and the impact it has had on their motivation as well as commitment. 
We started to ponder that I could try something similar with my year 9 top band students - students that we would expect to take a language GCSE, if they were compulsory (as our school doesn't follow two different pathways - academic and more vocational one, unfortunately, not all of them do).
In October, my Year 9 Aspire group was 'born'! 
With the recommendation of my colleagues, we have selected our 30 target students, I wrote a letter and I sent it to the parents with the date of TEAMs meeting, stating that I would like to meet with them and explain the purpose of the group and its programme. I was amazed how supportive our parents were!
Aspire Group letter
Presentation for parents (TEAMS)

Prior to my TEAMs meeting, I also met with the targeted students and briefly explained to them what was happening and also asked, if there are any of them there, who are certain it wasn't for them as I had other students on my 'waiting' list. Three students stood up! Out of 30, I thought that was a pretty good so far. 

So what happened since then...

The group meets with me every week on Monday from 08.10h - 08.45h, students spent time practising speaking in TL, ensuring they are secure in the knowledge of the core grammatical structures, working with variety of texts including literary texts and expanding their vocabulary. They are tackling tasks within the GCSE course specification. The atmosphere is nice and relaxed and I take students' interest into account too.
I have high expectations from my students and believe that, if students invest extra time and energy into their language learning outside their normal lessons, are keen to be a part of this Aspire group, they are likely to choose it in their Options, plus it seems that the 'exclusivity' is 'infectious' as other students have been asking me whether they can still take languages at GCSE, even though they are not attending the Monday morning sessions. 
Every session, I also take a register! Students know that if they don't attend on more than three occasions without a solid reason, they will be replaced by another student. So far, attendance has been very good, despite Covid, every Monday, I have on average 26-27 students attending and it seems to be popular as well. 

This is our first year trialling this programme therefore, after students have chosen their Options, I am very interested in the impact it has had on our uptake. If the impact has proven to be positive we will consider the possibility to run 2 groups next year. 
Our Option's pathways are not restrictive as they are opened to all of our students, regardless of their prior attainment or whether they attend the 'Aspire' programme, any student can chose to take a GCSE language for their Options.  I am aware that there are schools across the country that will consider only their top band students for GCSE because of the pressure of obtaining good results, I believe that any student who would like to take language GCSE, regardless of their target grade should be able to do so, as a result we teach mixed classes every year.

Update to follow after our Option's process...

Please, share your ideas and strategies that you are using/have used which are/were successful to increase your GCSE uptake.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Learning vocabulary - passive vs. active


 Learning and building students' vocabulary to develop fluency and eventually mastery of the studied language requires a lot of effort, time and practice. It involves a lot of hard work and patience and it is not always fun! It can be boring!
Every learner has a passive (receptive) vocabulary and active (productive) vocabulary. The passive vocabulary comprises of words which we decode and understand when we hear them in speech or read them in a text. The active vocabulary is made up of the words that we can produce and use when speaking or writing. Our passive vocabulary repertoire is much bigger than our active one and this is completely normal and expected whether it is in our native language L1 or in our second language L2. However, moving words from passive vocabulary into active vocabulary also takes a lot of effort, time and practice!

My students often find the receptive skill of listening a real challenge, especially when they have to listen to recordings. The speed of the utterances, the variety of accents/voices/ages/genders and the inability to see the speaker to help them with the small nuances that support the decoding of the message(s) can be extremely testing and at times demotivating. 
Language is a versatile tool which transforms with its perceived purpose. For example, when watching clips, my students can understand the gist and develop their passive vocabulary through comprehensible input and other clues provided via visuals much easier. For the receptive function, it is all about Comprehensible Input (CI).
However, comprehension is not enough when students want to express themselves through speaking or writing. For this to happen the words need to travel from their passive lexicon into their active lexicon so they can retrieve them when needed and produce comprehensible utterances quickly. For this transfer to happen students need abundant opportunities to speak and write in TL. They need to be able to think of a word quickly (semantic retrieval), they need to be able to use it accurately in a sentence - have a syntactic awareness associated with it's function in a sentence as well as to know whether the word is appropriate for the purpose of the communication at hand - Nation's (2013) - form - meaning - use (we all had our students choosing the wrong word for the wrong context - I had once student talking about 'Der Grundstück' - the plot of land when talking about the plot of a film).

So... how can we make the process of learning and expanding students' vocabulary more effective?

It is not a surprise that students that have larger vocabulary can perform better whether it is in assessments or in spontaneous situations, they demonstrate more confidence and are less worried about taking risks and having a go. This doesn't mean that what they produce is 100% accurate. We can communicate a lot with a rich vocabulary whilst still making grammatical errors, however, we can not communicate a lot with perfect Grammar and small vocabulary repertoire.

In second language acquisition it is important to consider the relation between implicit and explicit acquisition. Many researchers believe that most learning happens implicitly (Krashen, 1982 - CI), other practitioners suggest language skill is better developed through explicit instruction, modelling, practice and feedback.
*Steve Smith (researchEd article, 2019) advises teachers to 'hedge their bets' by ensuring they do two things in their lessons:
  1. Exploit natural acquisition mechanisms by using as much TL as possible in meaningful & interesting ways in all 4 skills.
  2. Exploit the gradual acquisition of skills using certain amount of explanation & structured practice of high-frequency areas of vocabulary and grammar
* Gianfranco Conti provides the best examples of marrying these two principles. For each year group, he uses a set of core items (universals) - chunks, patterns that are taught via implicit lesson routines such as texts and production tasks accompanied by SB scaffolds which facilitate the process of embedding them into LTM (see reference to full article below). 

Introduction and embedding of vocabulary:

To introduce new vocabulary, at my school, we use Sentence Builders (a là Conti). We spend around 6 weeks (4 or 5 lessons a fortnight) on a unit of work. This involves extensive modelling of the pronunciation of the new words/sounds and structures followed by abundant opportunities for practice in order to manipulate it in the form of modified output. To see more information on our modelling phase, see for a detailed post here and for receptive processing phase here. Vocabulary is also regularly retrieved in class via MWB. 
                                                                                          Sentence Builder - yr.9
Each of our sentence builders is linked to a Quizlet set and Carousel Learning set enabling students to practise the new structures (in chunks, so vocabulary is learnt in context) outside of the classroom as well. Thus it is retrieved and reinforced to ensure that it is embedded in students' LTM. Grammar is being taught explicitly at later stage, however, students often spot differences and patterns and ask curious questions, which we address immediately, when they inquire about them (Lexicogrammar).
Carousel Learning has been developed from the idea of the Retrieval Roulette (Adam Boxer) and the algorithm allows for interleaving of the topics/questions - this can be a random choice or the teacher can decide what question should be quizzed. It gives you - the teacher a thorough analysis of which questions/topics students knew and struggled with. If you already have your Retrieval Roulettes/spreadsheets they can be easily imported in.
                                                                Quizlet set                                                        Carousel Learning

We check students' learning every lesson via Retrieval Practice mostly using Retrieval Roulettes/grids (10 questions - mixture of words/sentences/chunks/Grammar points - L1→L2/L2→L1). If I have a group that is performing really well, sometimes I ask them to pre-learn some chunks/sets (flipped learning).
A new platform/website created by Martin Lapworth (creator of Textivate) called SentenceBuilders has been recommended by many colleagues as an effective tool which supports students in their learning of the SBs. The SBs are based on Gianfranco Conti's Sentence Builders books and the website is a collaboration of the two creators. The German section is being populated so I am hoping to test it soon myself.
Recently, I have watched a webinar organised by Linguascope, where @richwestsoley was presenting about AnkiApp.
An app, I have been familiar with, but haven't used that much myself. After watching the webinar, I am convinced that it is an amazing tool for my higher achievers and more independent/autonomous learners. The app is very efficient in terms of spaced practice.
As a bit of a caveat, personally, I think it is more suitable for more mature learners (AS/A-Level) as students need to be able to judge their learning honestly - they need to judge how confident they were with their answer. Based on this answer the algorithm decides when the card comes up again (spacing effect).
Why is the app so good? (shared by Richard West Soley via Linguascope)
  • Desktop (FREE) - web version works in phone browser too
  • Uses algorithm to space your learning - great for spaced practice
  • Can mix individual words and full phrases in context
  • Can be used with students: export your decks and share them with your class
  • Public decks are also available
For effective communication we need vocabulary - passive-active/receptive-productive/high frequency-content... From experience, for vocabulary to 'stick', it is important that words are learnt in context and not in isolation!
There have been many discussions about high frequency vocabulary (NCELP/Ofsted MFL review), especially about the most frequent 2000 words. However, what should be the high frequency words for students at schools? Are they based on the spoken or written language? Who is to decide?
We can say a lot or a little using just high frequency vocabulary. We also need the content vocabulary. How do we choose the content vocabulary? To make language learning appealing to our learners the content needs to be relevant and of interest to them - the learners...