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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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!!

Six Steps to Outstanding

Last week we had a visitor at school. In fact we had four. But rather than that warm, fuzzy feeling you feel when your uncle, auntie and two cousins pop round for some mulled wine and a mince pie in the run-up to Christmas, the whole school drew a sharp intake of breath and waited for the pain: Ofsted were coming.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those teachers who spirals into a whirlwind of panic, staying at school until 9pm and winding everyone else up with me. I know that I’m doing the things that Ofsted wants to see all year round, but not necessarily in every lesson all the time. You will understand my relief when the HMI gave me my feedback on her thirty minute observation: “that was definitely a 1”.

Outstanding & MFL

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on what makes every lesson Outstanding (this is teaching’s Holy Grail and, frankly, I think Monty Python would have trouble finding it even if we set them loose in the corridors of the DfE!). But I do know why my lesson was Outstanding, and I do know how other languages teachers can get there too. Here are my six simple steps to outstanding (note the consonance – catchy, right?).

Step 1: Engagement

No, my role is not to entertain – it is to help students to learn; but we all know that they learn better when they are enjoying what they’re doing. I don’t necessarily mean have ‘fun’ – you can enjoy something without having fun. The key is using learning activities that the students like doing: mine like using mini whiteboards, so I use them; they like doing silly voices when we use choral repetition, so we do; they like watching me do silly (and sometimes random!) actions to go with the words we’re practising, so I do them.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but how many of us have been drawn into the attitude you can hear repeated in every staffroom of the country?: “kids these days need to learn to sit quietly and listen,” “I’m not a clown,” “I don’t have time to play games, they need to learn”. Most of this is rubbish; the workplace nowadays is a much more vibrant place than it was before, and communication is key. In the UK, many of our students will be going on to work in service industries or in communicative jobs, such as those found in call centres. How are we preparing them to communicate if we make them sit at a desk and listen or write for an hour?

In my Ofsted-observed lesson, I used a range of activities my students enjoy to introduce book genres in French: choral repetition with actions for phonics revision; mini whiteboards for introducing the vocabulary using multiple choice and a Quiz-Quiz-Trade game to practise the phrases.

For ideas on the kinds of activities you can use, check out my post on The Kagan Method as a startpoint, or just get creative! It’s amazing what you can do with a bag full of dice…

Step 2: Sequencing

I was horrified at a GTP Subject Mentors’ conference last term when I discovered that most of my fellow mentors, all experienced MFL teachers, had never heard of PPP: Presentation, Practice, Production.

Lots of us will do these in some form or another without realising. The problem is that most of us don’t spend time on the largest ‘P’ – Practice, and most of us don’t sequence the stages strictly enough. Let me explain…

Imagine you are teaching students to use the comparative. You explain to the how to use plus…quemoins…que and aussi…que. You maybe do some mini whiteboard work. Then you want them to write their own comparative sentences. NO!

The problem here is that you haven’t allowed them to practise the structure enough, and by practise I basically mean repeat. Now I’m not suggesting that you spend a whole lesson repeating the phrase Monsieur M est plus cool que Monsieur S (my favourite model!) but you need to leave the structure wholly visible while the students spend most of the lesson ‘practising’ it – trying it out – with the support of the words on the board. They could be building sentences with dice, doing a RallyCoach activity (see the Kagan post) or playing a card game where they have to repeat simple comparative phrases (such as Kagan’s Quiz-Quiz-Trade or rosaespanola‘s ‘Cheat‘ card game), but the point is that they are using the structure over and over again without having to remember how it works – it’s the repetition that internalises the language. Once this stage is fully complete (after an hour, a week or even a term, depending on the structure) then get to the final P – Production.

In my lesson, the activities were clearly sequenced from Presentation – where I presented the vocabulary and had the students repeat, to Practise – where I used a Quiz-Quiz-Trade activity to get students repeating and remembering the words.

Step 3: AfL

Since its introduction into teaching, AfL has been the obsession of CPD leaders, SLTs and Ofsted inspectors alike, and rightly so; being able to ask students to assess their own learning and checking their understanding to inform your teaching is such an invaluable tool, and it’s so simple to do!

At my current school, students have green, amber and orange pages in their planner. Once I had done the choral repetition stages of my lesson and the practice activities, I asked students how well they felt they knew the vocabulary:

Using Assessment for Learning to check pupils’ confidence with new vocabulary is an invaluable tool.

Obviously the wording needs to be changed according to the activity you’ve been doing and what you’re leading on to, but the above descriptors worked perfectly for the next activity, and the next of my six steps…

Step 4: Differentiation

This is likely to be the least popular of my steps;  the staffroom cynics claim that differentiation is “too time-consuming” and that it doesn’t help students, since “they all have to sit exactly the same exam”. There is some truth in these points, but only because people have lost sight of what differentiation is for, and how to use it.

Firstly, differentiation isn’t supposed to be permanent: it should be used to push students on to the next level that is appropriate for them, with the aim of slowly weaning them off it for different skills and activities so that they can all pass that exam. I differentiate my activities for each skill (listening, speaking, reading & writing) according to pupils’ attainment grade for that individual skill and gradate the activities throughout the term so that they can finally complete a given task in that skill with no support.

Secondly, yes it can be time consuming, but we’re not talking about hours of work, and it’s work that you can keep forever! I tend to start with the same reading or listening text, and then use (a lot!) of copy and paste to modify the activities, ranging from those where students note down the information required independently to multiple-choice activities with tick-boxes.

In the lesson seen by the HMI, I had prepared two different worksheets for the same listening text: one green and one orange. Those students who had shown a green card took the green sheet, those who had shown the orange  card took the orange one. Simples!

This differentiated listening activity linked on perfectly from the AfL traffic lighting I did just before… and all just as the inspector walked into my room!

Step 5: Simplicity

As an NQT, I had an awful problem: for some reason, I got it into my head that when I was being observed, every lesson had to be groundbreaking, earth-shattering, innovative and, above all, COMPLICATED. I was clearly suffering from a prolonged stroke.

Whenever I was observed I tried to get students to make inhuman leaps in their learning, I had umpteen worksheets for each differentiated group and I made the lessons unmanageable. I even once got a 3! Sad times.

So my advice is, keep it simple – be realistic and don’t panic just because Ofsted are in. The best lessons are the ones that work, and those lessons are usually the simplest of all.

My ‘Outstanding’ lesson was painfully simple. By the end the students were able to ask the question Qu’est-ce que tu lis en ce moment and answer it with an opinion. Not groundbreaking, not earth-shattering, but in the words of the inspector, the pupils made “excellent progress”. Job done.

Step 6: Consistency

I have one request of anyone that reads this post: please, please, PLEASE do not wait until Ofsted announce their imminent arrival before putting any of the above tips into practice – it won’t work.

My heart truly sinks when teachers tell me that they replan their lessons for Ofsted – you shouldn’t need to. It isn’t hard to introduce one piece of differentiation a week (at first) and a few engaging activities, right from the start of the year. Remember – Ofsted inspectors, as much as we may hate them, aren’t stupid – they’ll be able to tell if what they’re observing is a show for them, and if they suspect it is, they’ll ask the students, who will be more than happy to dob you in!

So, don’t wait until Auntie Ofsted is knocking at your door – make your lessons Ofsted proof NOW!

Update! Here is the PowerPoint presentation with the sequence of activities I used for this lesson: T1 Year 8 – 9. Qu’est-ce que tu lis

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.