Friday, 27 July 2012

Training to become a Secondary Languages Teacher –What You Need to Know

This year I have been invited by one of my local universities to help out recruiting PGCE candidates for Modern Languages. The process has been really interesting to reflect on the reputation of teaching as a career in general and of language teachers in particular.
Throughout the process, I have been amazed at the range of backgrounds prospective candidates can come from. From native speakers straight from college to mature students and “career switchers” and every possible other set of personal and professional circumstances in between.
So, the first thing you would need to show is your personal motivation to train as a language teacher. There is really nothing surprising here but the challenge is to address both sides of the role-the teacher bit AND the language specialist bit.
Everybody has got an opinion about what a good teacher should be like, but the teaching role seen through the eyes of a student-or ex-student-can be really far from the truth. The only point of reference any non-teacher has is always their own experience of education, which will be either seen through rose-tinted glasses or at best-gasp-outdated. Even if you left school only 6 years ago as a student in the UK, I am sorry to say, but the vast majority of your experience as a student might be obsolete already. Yes, really.   
Whether you were educated or not in the UK, you will have to show that you have done your homework and you do know what the current situation is. Please do not mention motivational problems due to compulsory language learning at KS4 as this would now affect only a very small minority of schools.
So, what makes a good MFL lesson? Your only way to find out is really to see one so ask your local school if you can come in to observe. A bit of reading might help too and there are plenty of pointers available online on the Times Educational Supplement and Guardian websites as well as many resources for language lessons. So, how would you teach a Y9 class about transport in France? Just have a look at what practising teachers did. You just need to register to have free access to the site and be able to download any resources from it. Who knows, if you do get onto that PGCE course, you should be able to return the favour too…
What else would you need to keep in mind? Showing an awareness  of the qualities needed to teach children and the wider demands of the role is useful too.
You also need to show that you have thought about specific challenges like dealing with parents, teaching children with a wide range of needs and backgrounds as well as considered some strategies to deal with classroom management issues. No, you will not be expected to know it all but if you are aware of possible issues, you will be able to develop strategies more effectively to cope with them.  
Then, there are specific issues linked with native speakers. As a native speaker myself, my best advice would be to be honest and humble.   Yes, being a native speaker can be an advantage but you will also have to show that you can adapt to a different educational context and that you can empathise with your students and provide them with the appropriate support non-native speakers need to develop their own linguistic skills. I wrote about this back in 1997 at the beginning of my teaching career and many of the points I made then on p54, I would still make now…

Outstanding Teaching-Be the Best You can Be
Everybody wants to be outstanding, these days. The problem is that outstanding is, by definition, supposed to apply to a minority. This does not mean that we need to lower our sights. As we are human beings with fluctuating emotions and energy levels, the challenge of consistently being the best we can be should be the first step to get there. 

Considering key qualities to develop, I would aim to show:
*Enthusiasm-If we are not enthusiastic, who else is going to be?
*Expertise-As in "knows what they are talking about" but certainly not as in "fount of all knowledge". I believe that experts are people who are aware of the limits as well as the depth of their knowledge. As learning is never-ending, experts are only credible to me if they display some humility.
*Empathy-Understanding students and relating to them, being able to reach out for them-not making excuses for them.
*Ability to make students think for themselves and develop their independence-My aim is to enable students to be lifelong learners of languages and many other things...
*Ability to take risks and encourage students to take risks with their learning by creating an environment where making mistakes is something we all learn from.

My 2 main priorities would be:
to promote active engagement, where student co-operation supports the development of their learning skills and subject content knowledge, rather than just focus on student enjoyment that can be passive and just linked to content rather than skills.

to decrease my amount of "teacher talk"-start with 60/40 and aim for 80/20. Although students need to develop good listening skills, they can be doing that listening to other people than me. I feel this is very challenging for languages teachers as over-reliance on teacher talk and "over-modelling" is a traditional teaching default mode. So, how can we share lingustic input with our students in a different way?

For Listening and Speaking, developing students' knowledge of phonic patterns is essential. This needs to be taught systematically and in context, especially for more phonetically irregular languages like Enlish or French. It works quicker for more regular languages like Spanish or Italian and can make students feel a real sense of achievement as they can try to pronounce new words independently without entirely relying on the teacher. Using transcripts, making students compare what they hear to what is in front of them e.g. differences between audio and transcript, silent letters etc... also really helps students linking what they hear to the written word.

For Reading and Writing, training students to make effective use of resources such as dictionaries, verb tables and textbooks is key. Getting them to work in pairs or small groups can also help them to develop resilience as well as more general reading and writing strategies.

As regards developing student use of the Target Language, my view is that this can only be linked to speaking for a real purpose and I am planning to give students more opportunities to do this in class in a structured way. I feel these speaking activities are more likely to be successful if students are already starting to develop their independence as linguists. Students will then be able to manipulate better the language they know and make better use of resources at their disposal to find out independently the language they need to say what they want to say.

And what about being able to discuss and demonstrate progress in students' learning?

Many key elements to consider are linked with Assessment  for Learning:
*Effective learning objectives/ success criteria
*Effective questioning
*Peer and self assessment
*Reflection and self evaluation with students settig their own targets
*Verbal and written feedback from teacher and other students

Some tools like visualisers, flip cameras and mini whiteboards can help, but it is all about embedding their use in our classroom routines to make it more effective.

If traffic lights are used for mini-plenaries, rather than just focusing on whether students are red, amber or green on a specific objective, asking them why they think they are red, amber or green might reveal more about what they learnt in the lesson.

Likewise, comments from teachers and peers in students' books need to be refined and thought through in terms of impact on students' learning. Are the comments understood? What actions have been taken by the students to show they understood and acted upon the comments?
And more importantly... When have the students been given the time to respond to the comments? 

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems to me that outstanding teaching is a journey rather than a destination. If we want students to grow as learners, it is only fair we tried to do the same through our practice.      

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Oldham Network Event, Friday 13th July: Developing Students’ Independent Learning Skills in Languages

Please find here the resources I used, although I did not have the time to show everything as I was so busy listening to everybody else’s ideas!
Although the event had the central theme of developing independent learning in Languages, more ideas and tips were shared after we discussed the importance of “going back to basics”.
Books and other equipment:
Students need to be made responsible for using their books as a reference in  class. They can be encouraged to look after their books by writing page numbers, therefore preventing the temptation to tear pages and/ or write contents page at the back of their books referring to key grammar worksheets.
A small vocabulary book, stuck inside a main exercise book or carried with the main exercise book in a folder can help too.
Promoting the aims of learning languages:
Students need to be clear about the aim of language learning so that they do not consider perfect fluency as the expected outcome-hence the importance of realistic objectives presented to students. I also often like to challenge students with the “Why are we learning this” question, so that they cannot ask it later!  
Faculties shared what they do to promote language-learning in general, which included bringing back ex students who have developed a career using languages to talk to current students, inviting high profile local personalities like footballers who are fluent in several languages as well as take part in national competitions like Linguatrivia, LanguagePerfect or The Spelling Bee.
Even though students are currently not allowed to use dictionaries at GCSE apart from  in the stage 3 writing controlled assessment, it is an essential tool for linguistic development. We also discussed how important it was to show the difference between a dictionary and an on-line translator. Trials could be made using the translator to translate a nursery rhyme in Spanish, for instance, and then back to English to show how inaccurate the translations can be. There is also a strong need to develop students’ “meta language” and use of grammatical terminology. This will also help developing their literacy in their mother tongue.  
We all agreed that whenever possible, should be encouraged to buy their own dictionaries for class use, but unfortunately this is often something language teachers cannot rely on
Verb tables:
Once students know what a verb is, they need to be able to understand the concept of “infinitive” and realise that verbs in French, Spanish and German behave in a very different way compared with verbs in English. Being able to use a verb table in these languages is therefore definitely a step closer to linguistic independence.
Other resources:
The use of other resources such as learning mats was discussed. Learning mats can be laminated or just printed to encourage students to annotate them and add to them. I was also very interested to find out about the use of mini whiteboard to encourage students to produce a short piece of writing. Students do not respond to correcting in the same way when it is on a mini whiteboard as it is easier to erase and improve sentences. Pictures could also be taken of different pieces of work for students to reflect on/ correct/ improve/ assess the following lesson.
Collaborative writing exercises where students take it in turn to  “grow me a sentence” or write a story can also be supported by the use of dictionaries and learning mats
We all agreed that it was often better for teachers to keep the book that students use to record class work. This can create problems for homework but there are many ways to encourage good independent learning habits from home through homework booklets, homework projects, VLEs and language websites. Homework can also be supported at home by mobile technology,encouraging students to use mobiles to record themselves and practise their language skills using a range of apps.
We had a very long discussion about different ways to encourage student involvement in lessons using assessment for learning techniques and shared many documents on the wiki set up for the Oldham network.  
Self-assessment sheets can be used to support the  teacher’s professional judgement of the students’ progress. Students also need to be involved in the marking of their work by having to act upon comments and practise correct phrases and having time allocated in lessons to do this (MAD time-Make A Difference).
Comments can be made in different colours in students’ books to signal whether the work has been self-assessed, peer-assessed or teacher-assessed (sa/pa/ta)
Working with and from students’ mistakes as a starter or “connect” activity is also a good way to get students to reflect on their learning.  
 AVOCADOS posters are also an effective tool to get students to focus on success criteria for a specific piece of work:

A djectives
V erbs

O pinions
C onnectives

A dverbs

D etail

O ther tenses

S ubordinate clauses

Thank you very much to all participants for a very productive day. Looking forward to sharing more via our wiki or … twitter J

Friday, 13 July 2012

By the Book: Don't bin textbooks they can complement innovation

In this week's Times Educational Supplement, I look at how textbooks can support innovation.

When the revised key stage 3 programme of study for modern foreign languages was launched in 2008, it did not seem too different from its previous version. But it contained no defined list of linguistic content or topics to cover. Many departments decided to update their schemes of work, and the lack of defined topics at KS3, seen as an opportunity by some, was seen as a threat by others, who felt under pressure to design new modules from scratch and throw out the textbooks.

But instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, why not use textbooks to complement innovative new work? The textbook will provide the overall structure, while opportunities for consolidation and extension will be given to pupils by dipping into new contexts.
Many pupils start secondary school having learned some language at primary, so it’s important to check that the topics in the textbook are not repeated in exactly the same way. For instance, colours and adjectival agreement in French could be revisited by describing Impressionist paintings, rather than in a traditional “learn 10 colours” textbook-based lesson.

All textbook-based schemes of work usually cover topics such as food, parts of the body, festivals or the environment and can be greatly enhanced by cross-curricular links with practical subjects like art, music, dance, drama and food technology. In some secondary schools, these links will lead to developing Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) lessons to enable pupils to be taught another subject through the medium of a foreign language.

With a lot of teaching time taken up by controlled assessment at KS4, it is important to use and extend at KS3 all the opportunities provided by textbooks to find out about the culture of countries where the target language is spoken. The use of authentic materials, websites and objects brought back from holidays can engage pupils and encourage them to reflect on their cultural identity.

Whenever possible, links with the real world will also complement the traditional “let’s write a letter to a pen pal” textbook scenario, either through a real pen-pal scheme or through Skype links with schools abroad. This will also consolidate the understanding of key words and structures taught via the textbook.
Now we are free from content, it is time to learn how to fly.
Find all links and resources here.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Summer Reading: Modern Languages inside the black box, Jane Jones and Dylan Wiliam

Although dating back to 2008, this little booklet published GL Assessment and widely available online, is still key reading material for anybody looking at sharpening their Assessment for Learning (AFL) practice in the modern languages classroom. Some points may have been made some time ago, but the reason why they were made may have been forgotten as specific aspects of good practice were being pushed into schools.
According to the authors, it is essential to demystify language learning by sharing learning objectives and success criteria with the learners.  The ultimate goal will then be to enable students to develop the capacity to own and monitor their own progress as independent language users. This task will need to be supported across the school through developing students’ “meta-language”   in English and possibly even in the target language.
I have always been reticent to use the target language to present grammatical points as I have always felt that it was something many of my students would consider as one hurdle too many. However, I have always supported the idea that modern languages are a very good vehicle to develop students’ literacy in English.
I do feel that once the concepts have been presented and are understood, there is no harm in referring to them in the target language especially if they are cognate in the foreign language, which is often the case for the two languages I teach-French and Spanish.
Good language teaching is underpinned by effective questioning and it is crucial to enable all students to take part in the lesson, whatever their personalities and degrees of confidence.
The “ No hands up except to ask a question” is an effective strategy to allow you to do just that although it cannot be used all the time-particularly if you want a different answer to one given by a particular student. This change can be supported by a display like a “Hands up OK/No hands up clock” 
If we find it difficult to choose students at random , we can use a range of strategies including lollipop sticks and cards-provided we put them back in straight away or students might feel they are off the hook for the rest of the lesson. For students who are stuck, phone a friend,  Ask the audience or  50/50 can help them cope with the situation better and develop their resilience.
If a student says “I don’t know”, say “OK I ll come back to you”-and make sure you do or “yes, but if you did know, what would you say?”, insisting that all students must participate. Although that strategy works for most, what we need to consider is what to do when carry on telling you that they don’t   after their second chance (and some students will!!). Write it on a post-it and put it on a “stuck board”? Give the student a chance to find out about the answer and report back to the class at the beginning of the following lesson?
The “Question basketball” technique also aims to increase students’ involvement. The teacher asks a question to a random student, then chooses another for an evaluation of the answer, then another to provide an explanation of why the answer is correct or incorrect. By bringing different students into the discussion, the teacher  will develop individual reflection and student autonomy.
Rich questions move away from students just recalling the information to reflecting on the information at different levels-this is when references to Bloom’s taxonomy can be useful. For example “Is the verb avoir regular?” is a question requiring low order thinking whereas a question like “How can you tell a verb is irregular?” involves students into higher order thinking.
Rich questioning should also aim to provide opportunities for students to link current with previous learning. Indeed, it is especially important to teach students how the vocabulary taught in one context can be used in another.
“Waiting time” is an effective strategy to encourage learners to reflect on the quality of their answers. Examples of prompts include… “What can we add to  X ‘s answer?”, “Do you agree with X’s answer”. The teacher needs to plan for increasingly more linguistically challenging questions which cannot be answered with just “reproduced” language and do involve some degree of language manipulation.
All-students response systems can help involving all students and assessing their progress in the lesson. E.g. asking if a word/ phrase is correct and asking students to respond with thumbs up or down. This can create what Dylan and Jones call a “teachable moment”, when the teacher ask a student “You thought this was correct/ incorrect-can you tell me why?”. This technique can also be used with multiple choice answers and cards, mini whiteboards or an electronic voting system.
“The only effective feedback is that which is used”. This seems to state the obvious, but we all know how difficult it is to encourage students to act upon feedback. One simple technique is to tell them that there are errors and provide them with the time in class to put them right. The errors could be classified in spelling, grammar-for verb endings-, missing words etc…
The students could also be given a piece back with some errors underlined and encouraged to classify the errors into different categories. This exercise would then feed into students setting their own targets and working with peers who have complementary difficulties.
When the teacher sets target as a way to give feedback, if the feedback is intended to improve future work, the targets may need to be more general. This feedback can also be given following the “two stars and wish” format where students or teacher give 2 positive points and a wish for improvement on the work discussed.
The formative use of summative assessment is best done in groups of four or five to produce the best collaborative response as they can.  The other groups will then have to evaluate the response following set criteria.
For self-and peer-assessment, traffic lights can be an effective way to assess role-play work provided it is preceded by sharing clear success criteria and followed by deep questioning to ensure all students know how to reach the highest achievement they can.  If not, this will only lead to lower order thinking and not change students’ learning habits.