Cooperative Learning in MFL

Capture d’écran 2013-07-03 à 23.32.33

This is a blogged version of a CPD session I delivered to MFL departments in St Alban’s and Folkestone this year. The Prezi I used can be found here. The session aims were:

  • to look at strategies for planning for effective group work in MFL lessons.
  • to look into ways of encouraging a maximum of TL speaking by students.

At the base: the theory

It is important first and foremost to remember who we (secondary teachers) are doing all this for: teenagers. Stroppy, difficult, impetuous TEENAGERS. Studies have shown that there is a reason that we are so quick to assign these adjectives to adolescents; the teenage brain is not a young adult brain, but an entity in itself. It seems self-evident when you say it out loud, but I confess that I had never considered that teenagers were programmed to behave in the ways they do because of their brain chemistry until it was pointed out during a CPD session run by science teacher and research student Claire Tyson when I was working at Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre in Kent.

Claire made the analogy that a brain was like a sound system, with the prefrontal cortex as the remote control. The problem is that in a teenage brain, the prefrontal cortex isn’t yet properly connected, so teenagers make most of their judgements using a more primitive area at the back of the brain. They have the sound system, but no remote control! This produces the following results:

  • Teenagers typically experience lack of foresight; emotional volatility; impulsiveness; lack of thought for others.
  • Heightened sensitivity to dopamine means that teenagers value rewards more heavily than adults.
  • A similar sensitivity to oxytocin means that teenagers treat peer exclusion in the same way as threats to physical health or food supply.
  • Teenage brains don’t register delayed gratification – the appeal of fun now is too strong!

Stage 1: The Learning Environment

When we consider all of these points, it is easy to see that the typical classroom is far from being tailored to teenagers’ needs and not conducive to helping them to learn in a way that is going to be most effective for them. Yes – teenagers need to learn to adapt to a formal environment, but not through force. As teachers, it is surely our job to help them to learn in the best way for them? Do teenagers relate to their environment in the same way as adults? Can we have the same expectations of teenagers as adults? Should we treat teenagers differently because they are teenagers?

“Sensitivity to oxytocin means that teenagers treat peer exclusion in the same way as threats to physical health or food supply.”

In order to exploit this fact, and simultaneously tick the Ofsted boxes that value a variety of learning tasks (from individual, to pair and group work) I set about rearranging my classroom: I used grouped tables rather than rows to facilitate discussion and make it easier to switch between different types of task; each table became a team which could win points for good collaboration and effort; I designed target-language manage-mats based on those I had come across at a Kagan method CPD session to stream-line my classroom organisation and ensure that all pupils could be actively involved in their learning.

Stage 2: Cooperative Learning

At a recent conference in London on mindset, featuring the great Carol Dweck,  presenter Chris Watkins noted that the results of a survey that he had conducted showed that

“80% of teachers’ memories of ‘best’ learning experiences are active, collaborative, learner-driven and learning-focused”.

Some delegates argued that this was all very well, but that with a curriculum to deliver, there was no time for all this ‘extra’ stuff. Watkins succinctly retorted that he had proven that orientation towards better learning rather than performance actually improved performance itself! With this in mind, I aspire to plan activities which promote collaboration and cooperation to improve learning and skills. Some of these have been mentioned in previous posts, but you can never have too much of a good thing, right?!

  1. RallyCoach
    This is a great activity when practising skills that have a particular method to follow, like conjugation or negation. Rather than having students complete practise exercises in the traditional way, working through a textbook or a worksheet, the worksheet is split in half and students complete the acivities in pairs. As they do, they explain what they are doing to their partner who watches and listens, and, if they need to, questions and critiques. This process reinforces the method in both students’ minds. RallyCoach lends itself particularly well to differentiation because you can pair stronger students with weaker ones for coaching purposes.
  2. Structured Pair Work
    When practising skills as a whole class, generally with mini whiteboards, I once again ask students to work in pairs. The manage mats I mentioned earlier assign each student in the group a number 1 – 4 and the letter A or B. Quite simply, person A has a go at the first activity, person B at the second, and so on. Since both partners win a point if theirs is the first correct answer shown, the student not writing is still motivated to check that their partner’s work is correct to avoid wasting time making corrections.
  3. Structured Group Work
    This works on the same principal as the pair work activities, but uses the numbers on the manage mats instead of the letters. Each student is allocated a role for each exercise, and the roles are rotated throughout the activity to ensure that everyone practises the different skills.
  4. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    Rather than solely using choral repetition as a way of drilling vocabulary, which enables each student to repeat each word a maximum ten times or so, I use Quiz-Quiz-Trade to maximise the practise stage for every individual. Students circulate, each with a card with a target language phrase and its English translation written upon it. They pair up, and partner A reads the target language phrase. Partner B responds with the translation and then they swap roles. Partners then swap cards and circulate again before finding another partner and repeat the process.
Assigning roles during a running dictation activity encouraged teamwork & discussions about learning, reinforcing students' understanding of the language structures they were practising.

Assigning roles during a running dictation activity encouraged teamwork & discussions about learning, reinforcing students’ understanding of the language structures they were practising.

The Summit: Speaking to Learn

The educational system we have inherited clearly values writing much more heavily than speaking, but ask yourself: is speaking more important than writing? Do students get enough opportunities to speak in MFL lessons in order to prepare them for their controlled speaking assessments? Every time I have asked teachers this question,  the answer has been a resounding NO! Here,  then, are some useful tools to improve pupils’ oral fluency whilst still learning the structures and vocabulary they need:

  1. Phonics
    I won’t say too much about this; details can be found in my last post about French Phonics. Teaching these to my students has really paid dividends, because not only do they make far fewer of the common mistakes to which MFL teachers have become accustomed, they are also now far better at decoding words for themselves and thus able to expand their own vocabulary independently of any input from me.
  2. Songs
    Again, information about the use of songs can be found in a previous post.
  3. Simple Games
    At a PGCE mentors’ conference recently, the lecturer mentioned the practice stage of the PPP model (Presentation – Practice – Production) as being the weakest for trainee teachers, and urged us to show them how to “find 45 excuses to get the kids to say the same word”. This turn of phrase really hit the nail on the head, because we all know that it is through repetition that students improve their fluency. Choral repetition can, however, become boring. I therefore try to vary ‘repetition’ activities with a ludic element in my lessons to ‘hide’ from students the fact that they are repeating vocabulary. This could simply be by using dice to take it in turns to build sentences using the vocabulary and structures we have been practising. Similarly, having students play noughts-and-crosses in pairs using language on the board rather than playing as a whole class maximises pupil use of the target language. My favourite game, however, has to be Empreinte Digitale or Huella Digital: student 1 selects a phrase at random from a numbered list and reads this to the group. Students 2 – 4 then race to put their finger on the correct picture in a grid in the middle of the table. Each student takes it in turns reading, so all students are able to practise their speaking and listening skills.

The End

Wow. That has to be my longest post to date. Hopefully it will keep @flane (my biggest critic!) satisfied for a while! 😉


2 responses to “Cooperative Learning in MFL

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