Last week Simon Jenkins wrote an article which I probably don’t even need to link to, it has prompted a huge response, both from those who teach languages and those who don’t. In his article Mr Jenkins makes a number of points as to why he believes that learning languages in school is a pointless task. The comments on the article go some way to showing how people felt about what he said, but I wanted to put a response together to combat this rather disturbing suggestion.
I’m not going to deny that there is some fact in the article. Yes, on a practical day-to-day level there is no pressing urgency for people that speak English to be fluent in any other language. You can easily get by without it on holiday in major tourist destinations, and international businesses will have English speakers. Even the EU is likely to keep English as one of the key languages of communication as it is spoken by so many people. However, what I reject is that this therefore makes learning languages pointless.
Last week I read this blog by @TLPMsF about feedback, which also linked to this blog by @MrThorntonTeach. This post by @jo_facer talking about the way they give feedback at Michaela is also mentioned. What I am about to talk about comes from these blogs, I can't take any credit, other than making a very similar sheet and presentation to those mentioned.
This year I intend to take a different approach to marking and feedback.
For the second time recently I've been inspired by something Mark Enser has blogged/tweeted. At the end of his post, Mark asks what would be the first thing you would stop doing if you were trusted to get on and teach without anyone checking up on you. I'm sure this would vary wildly depending on the school you teach in, the expectations of SLT and the policies in place. I'm certain though, that the thing I would stop doing in the same way is similar for many people.
It's not a surprise is it?
Having read Mark Ensor's tweet and blog I thought I'd have a go at writing about what a typical lesson looks like for me and why I do the things I do. I thought this would be a productive exercise, not only for sharing the way I choose to do things, but also as a reflection for myself, a chance to really question what I do.
I'm going to think of a typical lesson with my year 7 Spanish class. This class have 7 hours of Spanish a fortnight (yes, I know we're very lucky) and started in September. There is nothing new in what I'm about to say. It's all been magpied and adapted for my own use from various blogs, talks, books, observations etc.
Another holiday rolls around, and once again the pang of guilt that I seem to have let the blog slide. This time I blamed moving house, although as that was about three months ago it's probably not that valid. I worry most about not having anything worthwhile to say, repeating myself or not really having anything to add to debate. I also struggle for ideas of what to write about, I . come up with ideas but by the time I start to write I realise it doesn't really merit a whole blog. I asked around on Twitter for some advice on regular blogging and as per usual Twitter didn't disappoint in the support it provided.
A lot of these replies are things that totally make sense, and even things that I've tried in the past and need to get back into. I'm going to set myself a day and time to blog, I think that really is the only way I'll regularly do it again. I need to write down ideas, thinking about blogging when I'm marking, or when I plan, when I'm in staff meetings, when I'm reading other blogs and tweets. Anything that makes me think, jot it down for later. I need to be less worried about other people, I'm blogging for myself in the first instance, to reflect and come up with new ideas. If it resonates with other people, then that's a bonus. In the past my blogging was all about my training/Masters, so now I need a new direction. I'm still deciding on if I want to mainly focus on MFL or on whole school issues, I'm hoping that will come as I get more practice.
I'm not sure that this should really count as this week's blog... maybe I'll come up with something later...
In my last blog I mentioned that I left ResearchEd thinking about lots of things, but that Steve Smith's (link to Twitter) session (link to blog with slides) in particular left me thinking about my own approach to teaching, and if I could justify why I do what I do.
Steve talked about the importance of methodology versus the importance of general teaching skills and was clear in saying that research into second language teaching methodology is still not yet mature and therefore there isn't a conclusive right answer as of yet. I don't set out to summarise Steve's session here, but I may refer to it a number of times as I go.
Near the beginning of the session Steve asked us to consider if we were more of an 'inputter' or a 'skill-builder'. At the time I put myself in the middle, reading over it again now I'm not 100% sure where I'd put myself. I think it depends on the class and the objectives. I do a fair amount of providing students with a text and asking them to work out the grammatical rules, but I follow this up with explicit explanation and structured practice. I balance the four skills, so I wouldn't say I have a focus on input or output there. I think language learning is unique, however I do see it as a skill and when classroom-based it is conscious learning. Unlike when you immerse yourself in Target Language culture and acquire language subconsciously. I suppose, if anything, I lean toward the skill-acquisition side, but only if I had to pick.
Also mentioned was the TSC Report on Pedagogy, Steve summarised the main points but didn't go too deeply into it as a later session by Ian Baukham was due to cover it in more detail. Steve's warning was that, as with many reports of this type, it had been written with audience in mind and to him demonstrated some selective use of research evidence in order to suit it's needs. That aside I will take a look at the recommendations and compare them to my own approach. Recommendation number 2 reads:
Pupils need to gain systematic knowledge of the vocabulary, grammar, and sound and spelling systems (phonics) of their new language, and how these are used by speakers of the language. They need to reinforce this knowledge with extensive planned practice and use in order to build the skills needed for communication.
I don't think anyone would dispute this point, surely as language teachers this is exactly what we're trying to do? Allow the students to communicate in the target language? Phonics is something I am guilty of explicitly teaching at the beginning of year 7 as a chunk and then not truly revisiting again. Well, I guess that isn't true, I am constantly correcting pronunciation and practising the sounds of the language with students, just without calling it phonics teaching. Maybe this is something I need to reconsider? Or actually, maybe these seems sensible, introduce it quickly and then reinforce throughout teaching.
The content taught through the new language should be stimulating and widen pupils’ knowledge of the culture, history and literature of speakers of the new language, without compromising the necessary sequencing of vocabulary and grammar.
With this point, I think the new GCSE and A Level specifications are starting to help us out. Before, there wasn't too much time to be able to discuss culture and history, and now this knowledge is assessed. I think this is great, and have been trying to bring this knowledge into KS3 more and more. I'm trying to find more ways of getting students to learn about the culture, history and literature without compromising on the language teaching and without putting them off with literature that is too challenging. I will be looking to see how I can embed this more into my teaching, but I am encouraged by this.
Teachers should select textbooks on the basis of how well they support a planned approach to teaching vocabulary, grammar and phonics. They should be supplemented by additional, attractive resources, including ICT and reading resources.
In part I agree with this point, any use of textbooks should be carefully chosen and supplemented with other resources. I'm unsure why these resources need to be 'attractive' however! Also, I feel this suggests that teachers should be using textbooks, and that comes down to the way schemes of work are planned, resources that are available and other factors. I don't think it matters if you don't have them, but you'd certainly find yourself doing a lot more work on creating resources.
Point 5 strikes me as two separate matters rolled into one:
Pupils should be taught to pay attention to the detail of meaning through translation, and should extend the range of their vocabulary and understanding through reading short texts and literature. They should have opportunities to interact with native speakers, both in person and through video links.
The latter part is something which I think all language teachers would want, opportunities for communication with native speakers. Again though, this depends on resources and funding available. A good aim, but one I think we would all be doing already if it were possible.
As for the rest of point 5, translation is now very much a part of the GCSE assessment and so it would only be natural to practise this in class. For me, this is something I have always done, although mostly from English to the target language for the purposes of assessing grammar and vocabulary knowledge. Translating from the target language to English is new, but an interesting skill to practice, and gives opportunities for discussing career opportunities in translation and the importance of translation as a skill. I know there are some out there who disagree with this, but I personally feel that it is useful.
Point 6 links very nicely to the session I attended led by Professor Bas Aarts:
Languages teachers should know and build on the grammar taught in the key stage 2 national curriculum for English.
The question I ask here is: where is the training for this? Where is the document published to support MFL teachers with this? When were we informed that a connective is now a conjunction? We weren't is the simple answer. I was rather enlightened by the session on grammar and how it is now taught at KS2 and intend to do my own reading on this, but I do think it's something we should be informed of, as many teachers will not know this. Please tell me if I've missed something and in fact it has been made clear.
I don't feel the need to make comment on the other key recommendations in this particular post, but you can read for yourself here.
Returning to Steve Smith's ResearchEd session, he then asked us to consider the input and output activities that we might include in a typical lesson. He gave a list of activities, some of which I felt more likely to use than others. For example, I am very likely to include comprehension tasks based on a text or recording, however I am unlikely to include crosswords or bingo. I used to play bingo to practice new vocabulary, but now I feel there are better uses of the time that practice the vocabulary in conjunction with grammar and other elements. On his list of output tasks I identified much more with doing a grammar-translation task, writing compositions or cloze exercises than I am to playing hangman or designing posters. Each of these things have their place, as starters maybe, or homework activities perhaps? They just aren't something I would be using in a lesson. I prefer activities where teacher input may be useful to help to correct misunderstandings, answer questions and push the learning forward. To me, crosswords and posters can be done as part of homework tasks to consolidate learning and for revision.
I wasn't able to go to Jess Lund's ResearchEd session, but I have done a fair amount of reading about how they teach at Michaela, from her blog and others. Some things I have taken from this (and they may well be things happening in other places, I'm not suggesting these are all unique to their school) have been:
From my reflections here, it seems to me that I work on the assumption that learning L2 is not like learning L1, and in a classroom setting I just don't think it can be. I try to balance the skills, have a mixture of input and output tasks with the aim of students being able to use the language independently.
I'm not saying that my approach is right, and I'm sure there are parts that some people will agree with and others won't, but I think that's the idea. I don't even know if what I do will work when I eventually move into a different type of school, but I will change and adapt. I feel the need to end on a quote from Dylan Wiliam that Steve Smith included, and I believe to be true:
"In education, "what works?" is not the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere, so what's interesting, what's important to ask in education is: "Under what conditions does this work?"
As ever, ResearchEd was a great day with plenty to take away and think about. I struggled to pick which sessions to attend as there was a great selection, in fact at one point I would've liked to have been in three rooms at once. Thank goodness for Twitter, I was able to catch up with them all later on. My day looked a little like this:
When we return after half term my year 11 classes will be sitting their final written controlled assessment. I cannot wait to see the back of it! I'm celebrating the end of paragraphs that are drafted and redrafted and redrafted once more, learned off by heart and regurgitated onto the paper when it's time to sit the assessment. Controlled assessment has been a game, and a memory game at that. It's not really been about who can use the target language, but about who can cram in all the good features using all their resources, get it marked, learn it off by heart and then write it all back down again without even having to understand what they're writing.
I promised myself at the start of this year that this would be the year that I read more. I wanted to read for pleasure again, after a few years of only reading for studying purposes. This has some what gone out of the window having moved house recently, although I intend to start clawing some time back bit by bit...
My list of books to read has been informed by recommendations from friends, books I've seen mentioned on Twitter and books authored by people whose blogs I read. I'd love to hear if you have read any of them, think there are any to steer clear of or have any I should add to my amazon wishlist! They're quite varied, although mostly dominated by education books.
Recently I've realised that the line between work and life is blurring more and more. I read a blog earlier (and I'm sorry, I can't remember who by) that said that it's not work and life that we are balancing, but work and home. I think that's very true. My work is a big part of my life, and is becoming increasingly more of a part of my spare time too. This isn't some sob story about the amount of work I bring home though, in fact I'm actually quite pleased with the 'balance' I have established there.