Saturday, 25 April 2009

Thinking Skills in Languages Lessons to Develop Active Learners

I attended this fantastic workshop run by AST and SSAT Leading Practitioner Louise Crossley at The Royds School Specialist Language College in Leeds on Tuesday 21st April, which also happened to coincide with my blog anniversary.

Even though the focus of the day was clearly on Thinking Skills, the friendly atmosphere created by Louise and the relatively small size of the group-12 teachers-meant a lot of other current languages issues were discussed amongst the participants.

The implementation of the new PoS was discussed with examples of Year 7 activities set up at The Royds School. No textbooks are used, active learning and the development of personal learning skills such as dictionary skills are encouraged on a regular basis through class activities. During the first term, the module is called “My New School” and it is also used as a bridging unit. During the second term, the Module is all about post-expressionist art and it is a creative way to explore grammatical items such as adjectival agreement, gender of nouns, word order, verb endings and tenses. By the end of the first module, all students are given the opportunity to attempt a level 6 piece of work.

A good way in more sophisticated topics is to ask the students to label a picture with as many words in the language as they can-this is also used as yet another opportunity to develop students’ independent learning and dictionary skills.

After a general introduction to thinking skills showing how the traditional textbook rarely covered more than the first three levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, Louise demonstrated how to set up a “mystery” activity. The aim of developing Thinking Skills activities is to raise the level of challenge as well as give opportunities to develop the higher skills such as Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation and “turn passive learners into active learners”.

The thinking skills that must be delivered through our Schemes of Work are:
1. Information Processing
2. Reasoning
3. Enquiry
4. Creative Thinking
5. Evaluation

Teaching Thinking Skills can also mean then need to appear more explicitly in the learning objectives of the lesson e.g. Learning how to build a negative sentence, the impact of gender. Another way of “sharpening” learning objectives can also be to teach a lesson around a set of framework objectives.

More group work should happen in language lessons. After a quick survey, we found out that although pair work was a regular feature of our languages classrooms, real group work was not as frequent. The optimal group was deemed to be of 3 or 4 people, where each student would have a set role within the group. Setting up good group habit is definitely the key to developing personal learning skills in an effective manner. Students could be given numbers 1-3 or 4 as they come in and the role of members 1-3 or 4 be explained at a later stage of the lesson (e.g. 1: reads the statements, 2: underline reflexive verbs in the statements, 3: summarise in English the decision made by the group after the discussion).

The “Mystery” approach relies on a question and a series of statements to support a discussion around this question. The example given was: “Should I live with my Mum or my Dad? Why?" The statements were of a high standard of French and included lots of vocabulary items that would be “caught not taught” often including a lot of higher level cognates. In the “meta-cognitive plenary” students would explain the reasons for their choice and identify specific language items if relevant e.g. reflexive verbs.

Although I was at first disappointed by the fact that the discussion was largely in English, there is no doubt that the group work set-up, the use of dictionaries and the high cognitive levels of the support statement make this a challenging and interesting activity on many different levels. There are also many possible follow-up activities, one of them being the opportunity to formalize specific grammar patterns-like reflexive verb endings in this example.

The “Mystery” could be introduced by another thinking skills activity: finding the odd one out. The success of the activity depends on finding a suitable question and different types of questions were discussed amongst the group, some aiming to focus on a specific item of grammar and other to expose students to high level vocabulary on a specific topic. Examples included: Which school would you pick? Is she a good citizen? Who is Sophie’s best friend? Will Antonio be a smoker? What menu will they choose? Who is telling the truth? (Some witnesses may be lying or not remember accurately). It is important to ensure that there are no straight answers or there will be no discussion. A sheet with key vocabulary should also be provided for the students.

Using Living Graphs and Fortune lines
As for the mystery, the discussions will be in English but the text will be in the languages. An introduction activity could be to re-build sequence of a story from a cut-out text. After looking at introductory vocabulary, a higher level text on the same topic could be looked at and the following be plotted: Is the person talking happy? (Y) What time is it?(X). The graph could also represent: well-off/ poor, healthy/ unhealthy, heaven/ hell...
This activity is particularly good to focus on connectives and sequencing.

Using images
*Find a title
*Draw a line from the picture and label it
*Speculate about it: when, where, what, who, why
*Do a collective memory activity where students collaborate to remember the whole picture

Diamond ranking and other ideas for classifying activities.
Brainstorm e.g. "What is a perfect friend?" (9 squares): adjectives to be ranked on the IWB or mini whiteboards, one member of each group to come to the board and offer feedback. Other examples included: ideal town, perfect meal (for you or for a friend), ideal lifestyle, perfect classroom, perfect night out, perfect weekend, nightmare journey, nightmare hotel.
Students could also sort the cards in their own chosen categories: (ex: for food) masculine/ feminine, French/ English, tried/ not tried

Although I already regularly use sorting activities and pictures and I had a clear idea about what Thinking Skills are, I found it very valuable to be given quality time to design my own resources putting into practice other areas of Thinking Skills. ...and the networking in between sessions was invaluable too!

Resources mentioned in the workshop:


alice said...

Thank you for this post, there are lots of interesting ideas and activities to try in lessons. The fact that year 7 can obtain a level 6 at the end of the first module is quite amazing although I am a bit concerned about the use of English in most discussions. I am a firm believer in using the target language even with lower ability groups. In fact I would really like to observe a lesson using this method :)

Chris Harte said...

Hi Isabelle,
I was on the original writing team for the Thinking Through Languages book and there were tons of great resources in there. It seems as if the thinking skills front has gone a little quiet over the past couple of years due to the huge amount of time and energy going into ICT development. Although I am an ubergeek, I sometimes think that the tasks we ask our students to do with ICT (create a voki/podcast/animoto/glog) are brilliantly creative but do not always challenge them cognitively. Glad to see someone is using the book!!! Great post thanks!

IC Jones said...

Hi Alice
Thanks a lot for your comment. When we say Y7 say can get a level 6, we do know that is different from saying they will be at Level 6 as a lot more evidence will be needed. I remember discussing with an OFSTED inspector the fact that thinking skills are limited by the use of the target language. His response was that the focus was different and so were the benefits for the students...

IC Jones said...

Hi Chris
I would not worry, the book is being used. As fas I know it is the only good book to do with thinking skills and MFL! Like you, I love my ICT and particularly the creative side of it, but shouldn't we always aim for a mixed diet? I feel thinking skills are going to be back with a vengance through the PLTS, so be ready to share this area of expertise again...

Marie-France Perkins said...

Great post Isabelle. I am very keen on using thinking skills in lessons. I have also started giving students challenges that they have to do in groups (4-6 students) - I have been amazed at what they can produce. The Thinking Through Languages book has certainly benn a source of inspiration for me over the years.

david said...

you good blog, interesting to read for me

louisecrossley said...

With regards to the discussion (meta-cognitive plenary)not being in the target language after such a thinking skills lesson.. I would dearly like to encourage this but have found that pupils are not accustomed to talking about their thinking in English. I am planning to start a blank space on the classroom wall to fill with useful discussion phrases to support the students more in the future. I agree with you that the now curriculum brings these skills to the fore again. Thank you for your post and it was very nice to meet you.

runaway said...

Thank you for another excellent and informative blog post with lots to think about! Doh!

No seriously thank you!

IC Jones said...

Thank you for all your feedback and let's carry on thinking ...