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?"