As a languages teacher, I’ve always believed that the main purpose of learning a foreign language is, not only to understand, but also to be able to express oneself in that language.
There are various approaches to language learning. The grammar-translation method, derived directly from traditional Latin and Greek teaching, requires students to learn grammatical rules and then apply those rules by translating sentences to and from the target language. In contrast, the communicative language teaching approach emphasises learning to communicate through interaction in the target language, often using relevant or authentic language.
At a time when one must describe oneself as either traditional or progressive, it is easy to ascribe the grammar-translation method to the traditional school of thought, and even easier to denounce communicative language teaching as hopelessly progressive.
Wo ist der Bahnhof?
In truth, of course, both methods can be done badly. As a schoolboy in Spain, I learnt English exclusively via the grammar-translation method. As a result, I was extremely adept at translating sentences such as “the fox jumped over the fence” or “it will have been seventy years” but, faced with an actual English speaker, I would have failed miserably to utter a single meaningful sentence with anything resembling a comprehensible accent. Some say that is still the case.
On the other hand, many of my British contemporaries studied languages with a more communicative approach, though unfortunately the only thing many of them can remember now is how to ask where the train station is.
But this can also be done well. As a teacher, I believe that grammar is inherently beautiful and worthy of explicit study. Yet I want my students to be able to express themselves in the target language with high levels of fluency and authenticity. I really don’t see these approaches as mutually exclusive, but rather as tools that can and should be deployed depending on varying circumstances and contexts.
In my context, these are some of the strategies that regularly feature in my lessons, drawing from both approaches:
Frequent Low-Stakes Testing
Testing has a bad reputation. I believe that when people lash out at testing, they refer mainly to high stakes testing. Proponents of these high stake tests will point out that children’s progress does need to be measured at regular intervals and that their results can be used to build a better picture of the quality of the education in large areas or countries, whilst opponents often highlight the adverse effect of teaching to the test and its ramifications on children wellbeing.
Low stakes testing is nothing like that. In fact, not only don’t I use them to measure progress, but students also love taking them. Why? Because it helps them learn. Watch the video above and listen to the quiet concentration in the room as the children test themselves.
Modelling and Redrafting
There is a lot of modelling, drafting and redrafting in my lessons. Typically, after vocabulary is introduced and students can recall it easily, I would pose a question and ask the students to think about how they can use the sum of their knowledge to best answer the question.
Every week, I reinforce key grammatical concepts and vocabulary by either using quizzing software for a few minutes in every lesson (see above) or via good, old teacher-student interaction. “Tell me, Maddie, quick, what is a juxtaposition? And can you give me an example in Spanish?”
Once the seeds have been planted the children attempt an initial answer. Each answer is different. There is no excessive scaffolding, only a basic list of things I wish to see in their answers, e.g. sophisticated vocabulary, three tenses, adverbial phrases and justifications. The rest is up to each student.
It is at this point that I select strategically two or three examples of student work that I wish to model to the rest of the class – either because it is excellent or because I’ve identified a common misconception that I wish to dispel – and photograph them with my iPad.
By using my iPad as a portable visualiser (see photo, above), I project the the photographs to the front of the class and and use my stylus to annotate corrections or suggestions, giving general yet highly relevant feedback that students can use immediately to improve their answers. This process of drafting and redrafting often culminates in a homework task, samples of which you can see below from a Year 11 class. As you can see, few corrections are needed at this stage, making marking light and, actually, enjoyable.
Metalanguage and Metalearning
Subject specific language is used throughout. I specifically avoid using terms such as doing words or describing words, and instead use their proper linguistic equivalents. So we talk about verbs, adjectives, adverbs, coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, juxtapositions, etc.
If students come to my class not knowing these terms at the beginning of a course, then I spend time explicitly explaining what these things are. Why? Because being able to refer to abstract grammatical concepts during feedback and explanations saves time in the long run and gives the children the tools to reflect about and take ownership of their own learning.
Explaining to students where they are, where they need to be and how to get there is at the heart of great teaching and learning. Marking policies in schools range from utterly sensible to completely barking mad. Many teachers understandably detest marking, especially when it’s done following a policy that everyone knows has little discernible impact on student outcomes.
Though I still make frequent use of exercise books, every now and then I set my students homework that is to be completed on their iPads. Above is an example. The drafting and redrafting process I referred to earlier ensures that there are precious few corrections, but I would still wish to leave some feedback or targets. Instead of writing these targets down laboriously, I can simply record my voice setting targets or giving feedback for each individual student to listen to and act upon. Pieces of work that are sixty to eighty words in length can be marked and meaningful feedback can be left in just a few seconds each, certainly under a minute.
As students can also record their own voices in this manner, I can set speaking for homework regularly and, as a native speaker of Spanish, not only can I feedback on content and grammatical accuracy, as were traditionally the only options, but I can also record myself to model accent and correct pronunciation.
We practise speaking in every lesson too, generally after completing the tasks I describe above and a quick recall exercise that ensures key grammatical concepts and structures are retrieved from memory and are raring to go. As frequent low stakes testing ensures that vocabulary is readily accessible to students from memory, they are able to construct new sentences and manipulate language on the fly.
Importantly, they are not simply reading in the target language or translating from a text, but they are actually replying using their knowledge to construct new language as they go, as we would naturally in our mother tongue. The language is fresh in their memory, but responses are not memorised. The video, above, featuring some of my Year 9 students hopefully illustrates this.
The Role of Technology
It is almost fashionable in education circles to decry the use technology as gimmick or an impediment to real learning. Hopefully these examples of technology being used to support what I hope are decent classroom practice and sound pedagogical principles are sufficient to question that perception.
But if technology really gets in the way, is a gimmick or does not add value to learning, then I think we are probably doing something wrong.
There you have it. What are your lessons like?
Also published on Medium.