Cooperative Learning in MFL

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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! 😉

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Synthetic Phonics goes Continental

Now I’m no fan of Gove (no… I’m REALLY not…) so I can’t say that I’m a great advocate of synthetic phonics testing in English for primary school children. That said, any MFL teacher will be able to regale you with stories of mistakes in target-language pronunciation often arising from students’ inability to decode the language’s orthography. (My favourite is one I picked up as an assistant in France when, in her Bac oral, a student confused the word ‘beach’ with another word which sounds similar but is in fact a very unflattering term for a certain type of woman.)

French phonics are fun

Teaching French in England is no different, but introducing French phonics at an early stage of a learner’s language acquisition can drastically improve pronunciation at GCSE level, and equips learners with the skills necessary to decode the different orthographic patterns found in French. The VAK (visual-aural-kinaesthetic) method is effective in teaching phonics because it simultaneously engages different functions in the brain and thus ensures maximum retention. Set out in the document below are the IPA transcription, orthography, example words, images and actions of the major French phonemes. Teachers should ask students to repeat the sounds while looking at the words & images on the board and doing the relevant actions in order to ensure maximum retention.

For non-subject specialists (particularly in primary schools) the pronunciation of each sound can be found on YouTube.

French Phonics – Teacher’s Guide

UPDATE: a filmed example of how to present the Francophoniques in class can now also be found on YouTube.

AfT: Assessment for Teaching

Last week I did the thing that most teachers would be terrified of doing, and asked my students to give me feedback on my lessons.

I can hear you all clamouring as you read: “are you mad?!” or the far more likely “it’s not students’ place to comment on our teaching – we are the professionals!” Well yes we are… but like it or not we are catering to a specific audience. I’ve said before that teaching is not about entertainment, and I stand by that – I’m not just some glorified clown; but who knows what helps them learn better than those learning themselves? We are professional educators, but generations change, and the fact is that the kids learn differently and respond differently to the work with which they are presented.

WWW and EBI

With this in mind, I decided to open myself up to a bit of criticism. The students in my y10 classes have already had to evaluate their own performance after controlled assessments and set themselves targets for the term, and they are used to me marking their work with two What Went Well comments and an Even Better If, so I was confident that they would be able to evaluate my teaching constructively. I was right to take the gamble.

A job worth doing

I gave the girls a piece of scrap paper each and asked them to think about their lessons with me so far this year and, with their learning in mind, give me two WWW comments and one EBI for their French lessons. Now I’m not really one of those soppy “in it for the kids” kind of teachers, but what they wrote almost made me cry. I know – the shame.

Not only did they give me serious constructive criticism on the activities I organise for their learning and how well they help them to learn the structures they need to use, their comments also showed me just how important the student/teacher relationship is for the students:

“You genuinely care about all your students and not just because your job tells you to.”

“You are really helpful, and support us, and care for us.”

“[You have] a caring attitude towards pupils which is reflected in the happy atmosphere which is present.”

Wow. I was truly overwhelmed.

The bad bits

Even the EBI, which most teachers would probably be terrified of seeing in black and white, bowled me over; the targets that the vast majority of students gave me were directly linked to the impact of my teaching on their learning, and were things that I would never expect to hear from students:

“Even better if we had more vocab tests.”

“More revision lessons.”

“More revision sheets to do at home.”

“More speaking in front of the whole class.”

“If we had mini-tests more often.”

“Ok, ok,” you say, “you’re clearly in some sort of teaching utopia – the Holy Grail of schools. This wouldn’t work for the rest of us.” Well, actually, no. Yes, my school is a girls grammar school, but in a fairly poor region, and with a much wider catchment than most grammar schools. Some of our students have some serious BESD issues. It’s the supportive atmosphere in my class, and more importantly throughout the school, that has led the girls to make these comments. Even one of the moodiest girls I teach came by after school on the day we did this to “have a chat in French” while she waited for her friend who was in detention.

A kid’s guide to teaching

So, unable to keep this amazing learning experience to myself, now it’s time to share the pupils’ point-of-view with you and see how they think we could improve our teaching:

  • The student-teacher relationship was a key factor in almost every single student’s appreciation of my lessons. Whilst I’m not there to be liked, it makes it so much easier to take them on a learning journey with you if they trust you and feel supported by you.
  • Interactive/active/engaging learning (their words) was the way they found they learnt the most on lessons. See my posts on Kagan and dialogic learning for more ideas.

So there you have it: I put myself on the line and took one for the team! Now let’s start teaching the lessons that the kids really want to go to!!

Optimus Education: Outstanding Secondary Learning and Teaching One-Day National Conference 2012

Going out of school for CPD is always a mixed blessing; it’s nice to escape from the intense pressure that is school and, as much as I love my students, sometimes I need to be away from the white noise of teenagers’ learning and emotional needs; but for those of us so close to the capital, it’s also a day of busy public transport, an early rise and a late return. Still, I am lucky to be in a school that allows teachers to go out for training, and even luckier that I was trusted to go in the place of the member of senior leadership who was supposed to be going originally. Thus, on 14th October, I found myself stepping off the HS1 into London’s St Pancras station and heading to Brompton for the OptimusEd Outstanding T&L Conference 2012. Here’s a review of what I saw and heard:

Keynote 1 – Ofsted Update, Gill Jones HMI

Gill Jones’ Ofsted update was a little late for me, since Ofsted came and went last term (and told us we were Outstanding!). Nonetheless, her comments seemed to corroborate my experience of Ofsted and will be useful for anyone dreading their impending visit:

  • The quality of teaching is the top factor relating to pupils’ success,
  • Inspectors observe pupils’ learning, not teacher’s teaching,
  • Teachers not expected to do everything required in one lesson,
  • No one teaching methodology is preferred,
  • SLT observations should record progress of particular students in groups,
  • Literacy should ensure students use relevant subject-specific vocabulary,
  • SMSC is observed in the corridors as well as in lessons.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Modification of lesson observation forms to account for pupil progress,
  • Literacy policy embedded in all lessons.

Keynote 2 – Embedding Outstanding Teaching & Learning, Claire Gadsby, T&L Consultant

Claire Gadsby’s talk was a mixture of useful suggestions and anecdotal evidence on strategies to encourage staff to work together to improve teaching and learning throughout the school:

  • Outstanding practice should be modelled for busy teachers to enable them to see it working,
  • Avoid ‘overload’ through ownership, by involving teachers in developing ideas for outstanding T&L,
  • CPD should be as engaging as the lessons we try to plan for pupils,
  • Feedback should be shared in a variety of ways:
    • Pecha Kucha,
    • Staff learning wall,
    • WAGOLL (what a good one looks like),
  • CPD should include variety (eg: incidental CPD – placing random objects in the staff room),
  • Coaches should co-plan and co-teach.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Varied feedback models embedded in CPD sessions,
  • Introduction of a staff learning wall,
  • Use of videos of activities during CPD sessions.

Keynote 3 – Independent Learning, Will Ord, Director of Thinking Education

Will Ord’s Keynote on independent learning was as energetic and inspirational as his workshop on questioning:

  • Encourage staff to teach a ‘Golden Lesson’ every week where they try out a new idea,
  • Embed independent learning skills into lesson objectives (eg: to learn how to solve quadratic equations; to learnt to use questioning to improve our learning),
  • Pupils time teachers to see how much of the lesson they spend speaking (sometimes up to 90%!),
  • Use of Learning Warriors – weekly celebration of resilience in the classroom.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Introduction of weekly departmental thinking skills objectives for each year group.

Session 1B – Questioning, Will Ord, Director of Thinking Education

Will Ord’s workshop focused on the use of questioning to encourage higher-order thinking, not only by teachers, but also by training and encouraging pupils to ask the right questions:

  • Remember that different questions exercise different thinking skills,
  • Use phrasing so that options aren’t limited (what might the answer be not what is the answer),
  • Encourage students to use higher order questions in their discussions (a selection was given on the handout),
  • Use stimulus-story-concepts-questions model to lead students to ask more searching questions,
  • Use lego bricks to encourage students to build discussion based on what their friends have said.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Introduction of higher order question posters in classrooms,
  • Training on the use of stimuli in lessons,
  • Investment in sets of lego bricks for departments.

Session 2C – Language for Learning, Sophie Holdforth, Hackney Learning Trust

Sophie Holdforth’s slightly quirky session was actually very inspiring and introduced me to some knew cooperative learning-style stragies that I hadn’t seen before. I really enjoyed this one, even if she did make me wear a (very!) smelly deerstalker hat:

  • Writing has acquired a higher status than speaking but this can be just as helpful for learning,
  • Ofsted are looking for oral literacy skills as well as reading & writing skills,
  • Reciprocal teaching encourages students to discuss by assigning them roles:
    • Questioner (asks questions about the text),
    • Clarifier (looks up unclear vocabulary),
    • Predictor (predicts what may happen next),
    • Summariser (uses own words to sum up),
  • Dialogic teaching uses prompts to scaffold dialogue,
  • Speak-alouds allow teachers to model thought processes about the text whilst reading.

Dialogic teaching uses prompts to scaffold dialogue, like these ones which I used during an A2 French lesson encouraging students to discuss their ideas on Voltaire’s Candide.

Monsieur M’s suggestion for use in school:

  • Introduction of think-alouds in reading groups,
  • Use of bookmarks to remind students of RT roles,
  • Posters of prompts for dialogic teaching in classrooms.

Session 3B – Differentiation, Paul Anstee, Author: The Differentiation Pocketbook

Differentiation is something I consider to be a personal weakness, so I was looking forward to getting some new, practical ideas to use in the classroom. Unfortunately, Paul Anstee’s workshop was neither engaging nor differentiated (despite him urging us to ensure that our in-school CPD was differentiated for teachers!). The hour-long session effectively defined what the different types of differentiation are and are not, and was a very disappointing end to an otherwise informative and thought-provoking conference.

If you’re interested to know more about any of the strategies mentioned above, feel free to comment or contact me either by email or on Twitter! I’ll be happy to share all of the resources I have!

ICT in MFL – acronym heaven!

My school recently advertised for a member of each department to be ICT Champion for their subject… naturally, I couldn’t resist! But before writing the one-page proposal for how technology could be applied within the MFL department and why I was THE person to do it, I had to have a think about what I actually knew.

What about Q23?

We all remember well Qs 16 and 17 of the Professional Standards for Teachers – you know, the ones about passing an ICT test that had nothing to do with programmes people actually use, and the one that you validated by using a ‘custom animation’ in your latest PowerPoint that your mentor thought had come straight out of Star Trek. But what about the Q that time forgot: Q23?

In observing my trainees, I rarely pay much attention to what they’re doing with PowerPoint/SmartNotebook/Promethean (delete as applicable) – for me, the point in using ICT in the classroom is to enable a higher level of engagement, interactivity and independence from the pupils: Q23 – Design opportunities for learners to develop their literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. Ie: the kids have to use it too.

Student-based programmes

With this in mind, I sat down to think about all of the times my students had used ICT in my lessons to enhance their learning. This was not easy – whilst the will had always been there, poor WiFi connection and batteries that refused to hold their charge for a full hour often scuppered my plans. Still, there were some times when I felt genuinely pleased with the result, and none of those involved students copy-pasting from Wikipedia to PowerPoint and then reading their work to the class, stumbling over the Americanisms they had lifted but didn’t understand. Here are my top favourites:

1. French History Project (y7)

The VLE at my last school was (although not perfect) truly interactive and pretty user friendly: it was called RealSmart. Using the ‘mind-map’ application (unsurprisingly named ‘RealMap’), I created a three-hour long project for year 7 students on French historical periods.

Lesson 1 saw students in groups named after French regions logging on to the Histoire française RealMap from their netbooks and clicking on the coat of arms for their region. They were then presented with a series of reading and listening resources based on different periods of history (one per group) which they used to complete the exercises on their worksheets. All of the language in the resources was based on structures we had seen throughout the year so this was a great way to show their use in a contextual situation. During lesson 2 students broke away from their former groups to form new teams, with one student for each period of history per team. They then shared their information, teaching the other students in their group, before planning the final activity to be completed in lesson 3 – creating a timeline of French history.

This project was not only a great way of introducing cultural information into the MFL classroom whilst still practising essential language; it also enabled students to develop their ICT skills in a controlled way, without just resorting to Google and Wikipedia.

2.  VocabExpress

Whilst the next offering wasn’t really something that I created or even used in lessons, I couldn’t write a post about ICT in MFL without mentioning it.

VocabExpress is a web-based programme for – you guessed it – learning vocab. We all know that there is just not enough time to drill vocab and teach structures in lessons, so VocabExpress is the ideal accompaniment to any MFL course. Students log on with their own ID and complete different learning activities for a given list of words, chosen by the teacher (all of the vocab that has been uploaded is taken from the main coursebooks and so can be easily linked to any GCSE or A Level topic). The programme is intuitive, so when students make mistakes, it remembers and gives them those words more often. The teacher can monitor everything they do, from when they log in to what exercises they have completed and how well they did. Scores are then converted into points and a leader board is displayed of the whole class. There are also rankings for each class within the school, each school in the local area and there is even an annual national competition where schools from across the country compete for points.

The students LOVED it; the competitive element coupled with the fact that they could log on and learn whenever they wanted made VocabExpress a real success.

3. Blogging

The third and final activity in my list of favourite uses of ICT in MFL is a shameless piece of theft, but I am sure that its creator will not mind me stealing it!

My PGCE/Master 1 student on her second placement with us has been teaching her y7 French class about hobbies and free-time activities. Towards the end of the term, as a culmination of the work they had been doing, she asked them to bring in their netbooks and write a blog on their free-time activities. ‘Not very creative’ I hear you shout? Well wait for it…

Once the blogs had been designed and written, students were asked to include a space for ‘reader comments’ just like a real blog. They then left their netbooks in their places and moved around the room, reading their friend’s texts and leaving comments in French (which had been introduced previously). This was such a simple and yet amazingly creative idea, and an excellent way to get students giving their opinions in a real context. If this had been coupled with the RealSmart blogging facilities (RWeb or RCast) this would have been a truly interactive experience.

ICT means money

Now I know what the more cynical among you will be saying to yourselves: where did all of these bloody netbooks come from?! It’s true that 95% of the students at Homewood had signed up to a part-rent part-buy laptop scheme which meant that they all had their own netbook. I can’t deny that, if this isn’t the case in your school, buying a laptop trolley for a department can be very costly. Most schools, however, do have ICT suites which, with some planning, could be booked for a series of lessons to enable some of these activities to take place. The main point is that you really should make the effort – it will be well worth it!

The Kagan Method: teaching’s Holy Grail?

The first time I heard the word ‘Kagan’ was not a positive experience; a parent of one of my tutees (also a teacher) warned me of the impending hell when I told her that an entire INSET day had been dedicated to this newfangled teaching method. Thankfully, she was wrong! The training, delivered by Gavin Clowes from Teacher To Teacher (UK) Ltd. was engaging, creative and very thought-provoking.

Nobody is left behind

Kagan Cooperative learning, developped by Dr Spencer Kagan and associates, is a teaching and learning method designed to actively engage all students in their learning throughout a lesson. The underpinning idea is that, if all students are actively involved at each point during their lesson, their results will improve and behavioural issues will diminish greatly.

Kagan, however, isn’t just a philosophy; it’s also a collection of useful independent learning activities that can be used by teachers of all subjects with classes of all abilities. The characterising feature of each activity is that every student has something to do at every moment, meaning (for the MFL classroom) that everyone is practising their language skills at the same time!

Pick your activity

Kagan activities are not all suitable for the MFL classroom; they rely heavily on peer-to-peer discussion and the sharing of ideas and opinions between students, which requires too advanced a level of language for most MFL students. Some of the activities also lack the structure required for supporting student-to-student conversations in the target language. Some activities, however, are ideal for teaching foreign languages; here are my top three favourites:

  1. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    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. This activity is ideal for practising new vocabulary and ensuring that all students repeat a range of phrases.
  2. RallyCoach
    In pairs, students have one worksheet and one pen. They take it in turns to solve one problem each, explaining to their partner how they are solving the problem as they go. This activity works particularly well for grammatical constructions (negation, conjugation &c.) and is ideal for peer mentoring, when a stonger student is sat with a weaker student.
  3. Carousel Feedback
    This activity works best with a timer running. I have adapted it slightly in MFL lessons by combining it with another Kagan activity (RoundTable) to provide the necessary structure mentioned above: in groups of four, students take it in turns to add one idea to a mind map (for example nouns to complete the sentence Dans mon école idéale, il y a…). When the timer runs out, each group stands up and moves around the room, looking at other groups’ mind maps and noting down answers that they hadn’t thought of.

Don’t go calling Arthur

Despite the title of this post, I cannot unequivocally say that Kagan is the ‘Holy Grail’ of education; of the 36 activities elaborated by Kagan, only a handful are suitable for MFL teaching. The activities are also a bit samey, and if all teachers in the school start using them, students get quickly bored (five bouts of Quiz-Quiz-Trade in a day can be quite boring! Although this does make one reflect on the overuse of PowerPoint…). Nonetheless, Kagan training is an essential tool for every modern teacher’s arsenal, and the Kagan Cooperative Learning handbook is a must buy for any department.