Reflections from #ReDRugby MFL Strand

Temple Speech Room – Rugby School

It’s been a while. Only a year! I guess this is my yearly blog post. Here it goes:

First, it was a brilliant event. Well organised, excellent speakers and a huge amount of choice. Hats off to Bex Nobes, Adam Lamb, Becky Staw, Dan MacPherson, and Katie Lockett. The first time from some but they did it really well. They are great colleagues.

If you have never been to a ResearchEd, you must. I think it is a fantastic way to re-energise your commitment to this wonderful profession through inspiring professional development, reflection and networking.

The question I am reflecting on, is this: Are our current pedagogical practices at odds with research in Second Language Acquisition?

To discuss it, I must give you a quick overview of Dr Gianfranco’s 90 minutes session and warn you; I haven’t included the references to research he made but his work if well referenced and you can easily access a thorough explanation of his approach here and here.

Dr Gianfranco Conti’s presentation was the only one grounded in SLA and applied linguistic research in the MFL strand. The main thrust of his argument was that our teaching should be mostly concerned with developing listening skills. Listening is the most crucial skill taking 45% of all communication in everyday life and listening aptitude is the stronger predictor of language learning. Also, we are biologically ‘hard wired’ to learn through listening. It should take priority in our lessons.

When we read, we automatically sub-vocalize the text in our brains activating ‘retrieval by sound’. In other words, ‘Memory is mediated by sound’. We learn languages through listening. Nevertheless, in language learning, the starring role of a limited working memory and the finite nature of the phonological loop, demands an approach where the main function of listening is to model phonology, spelling, syntax, grammar and vocabulary.

“We learn languages through listening”

At KS3, where the pressure of examinations doesn’t exist, we can foster the linguistic talent of our pupils by taking on the role of a ‘teacher nurturer’. As such, we instil a passion for language learning doing what nature does: model through sound. Developing listening skills only using tracks from textbooks, not only has limited usefulness but it can be damaging to pupils sense of self-efficacy. Production, mainly in the form of speaking, takes place after a sequence of two or three lessons including extensive receptive practice.

Only at KS4, after we have trained pupils to master implicitly the micro-skills of listening through, chunking, input flooding, thorough processing, and contextualization, we introduce them to exam questions and grammar, presented explicitly. Creativity comes at this stage when cognitive load is unlikely to cause problems with less able pupils since they have gained a high degree of mastered patterns.

Last, Dr Gianfranco urged us to move away from the teaching obsessed with production ‘That nice little paragraph at the end of the lesson’. He went on to say that, language learning is a process that happens invisibly in the brain. We cannot, according to him, rush to production just because SLT says so.

To answer the question more directly, I think that at least the ideas considered above are certainty at odds with what we as teachers sometimes feel compelled to do in the classroom and it is at odds with other practices:

  • The standard starter-main-plenary lesson (all singing–all dancing lesson) that SLT wants to see
  • Teaching exam tasks and techniques from Year 7
  • Production based teaching (Ending lesson with a paragraph every lesson)
  • Seeing one lesson as a standard unit of learning
  • The large content to be covered and little time available to do it
  • Explicit grammar teaching since Year 7
  • Considering language learning as acquiring knowledge not skill

Obviously, we don’t teach in a vacuum; we are subject to many external pressures and we decide with the best intentions what’s best to help our students succeed at GCSE. However, I think that aligning our practice more closely with empirical evidence from research in SLA can only be positive. Doing it, will empower us to take ownership of our profession and our subject. It will give us the confidence we need to be effective in the classroom. It will guide us, giving us a reference point for pedagogical discussions. In advocating for the needs of our subject, we will not longer lose our battles with ‘non specialists and managers’ who often rely on the conveniently bias wisdom of ‘folk knowledge’ and ‘subjective experience’ to make their case.

Finally, the only thing missing for me in the MFL strand was a speaker from the NCELP to present their case for explicit grammar teaching from Y7 and to showcase their national strategy aim at supporting our beloved subject.

Thanks for reading!

About me

I fell into teaching by accident. When I started my PGCE, I was clueless about what I was doing. Everything was an uphill struggle; managing my time, creating resources, lesson plans, writing essays, etc. I survived, just!

I realised that a lot of what I suffered during that year, was due to my lack of engagement in reflection. My decisions were poor because my thinking was poor.

I believe as a teacher that I am at my best when I make decisions based on thoughtful reflection. This blog is me thinking aloud.

If you are a teacher of any kind, and you like to read, pause and consider how best to serve the interest of your pupils, this is the place for you. While I keep writing and adding more to my blog, you will be able to find resources, ideas and book reviews.

My name is Francisco Recalde. I am a native speaker of Spanish from Paraguay. I have been teaching languages for 5 years in an inner-city school ‘somewhere up north’. On the weekends, I volunteer at a local evangelical church. I am a member of the Chartered College of Teaching and a self-confessed education anorak. I attend far too many conferences!

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WHY TEACHING GRAMMAR TO YOUNG LEARNERS IS A BAD IDEA 

At the CCT Languages Summer Symposium two weeks ago, I attended a session led by Dan MacPherson. It was called ‘Entdeckendes lernen: An Approach to Successful Grammar Teaching’. Below, I have summarised what I learned and also share some implications for practice.

It is important to highlight two things. First, I am paraphrasing the main points made by the speaker. Second, when I mention grammar I am referring to conjugations, but not exclusively.

‘Entdeckendes lernen’

‘Entdeckendes lernen (explorative or discovery learning) is a method of teaching grammar. It is comprised of five phases:

  1. Impulse phase: The teacher exposes pupils to examples of the language patterns they need to learn.
  2. Presentation stage: The teacher shows pupils the link between the language pattern introduced and what it means.
  3. Insurance phase: Here the teacher makes a scaffolded explanation of the language pattern. Pupils note down the key information for later reference and practice.
  4. Practice phase: Pupils practice the target language pattern under very controlled conditions. Verbs and examples are similar throughout to allow pupils to apply the rules.
  5. Transfer phase: Pupils have the chance to use the grammar rule independently.

Once you’ve completed all the phases, you can repeat phases 3,4 and 5 in a cyclical fashion if you feel this is necessary. To see the examples used, click here

Discussion 

Often, teachers use a similar approach to teach grammar. In doing so, they are likely to take into account:

(a) The breakdown of the rules into manageable chunks.

(b) A reduction in pace.

(c) A lot of practice.

Pupils are often able to show autonomy and competence during practice. However, they struggle to apply grammar.

Using this approach, or any other, to teach grammar places a significant demand on young pupil’s cognitive abilities. Doing so is counterproductive because young learners have a limited working memory. They also have a restricted experience of language learning, thus they lack the strong mental model to understand the complex workings of a grammar rule.

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Moreover, as teachers, we forget how difficult it is to grasp a grammar concept. Here is a list of elements your pupils must grapple with when dealing with conjugations:

  • Terminology
  • The concept of infinitive verbs
  • Pronouns
  • Infinitive verb endings
  • Adding or taking away the ending of the infinitive
  • Regular verbs vs irregular verbs (various types)

The more complex the grammar, the longer the list. No wonder many pupils find it too complicated.

The alternative 

Don’t teach grammar explicitly at KS3. Instead, give students a set of linguistic devices to be stored in long-term memory through repeated exposure and retrieval practice. This corpus of verbs and phrases will serve as a strong foundation on which pupils will build their understanding of grammar.

For example, before teaching the conditional tense in Spanish, it would be clearer for pupils to spot the patterns of the tense if they are already very familiar with phrases such as; me gustaría, sería, seríamos iría, etc.  Also, having 5 to 10 examples of how to use the verbs avoir and être, would make it easier to learn the perfect tense in French.  This will have a more positive impact on pupils’ confidence and ability to communicate using TL.

Conclusion

Teaching grammar has a small part to play at KS4. The aim of grammar should be to enable linguistic production. Introducing it too early runs the risk of disabling it by getting students stuck in the murky checklist of grammar rules.

The decision to introduce a grammar rule is in your hands. However, you need to consider its necessity, it’s relevance and its challenges. Giving pupils content which is beyond their ability to grasp is simply disadvantageous.

Implications for Practice

  1. Opportunity cost: To invest my precious time well, I will not be introducing any complex grammar rules or conjugations at KS3. Instead, I will give my pupils a set of commonly used phrases such as the ones here.
  2. Weekly low stake quizzes: I will set self-quizzing as homework and I will start my lessons with low stake quizzes. All this, to enable my pupils to build sets of key phrases into their long-term memory.
  3.  Organised approach: I will be teaching grammar at KS4. The approach outlined above seems fitting. Also, I will take into consideration the support, pace and practice needed. M.A.R.S from Gianfranco Conti is another good approach to teaching grammar and is well worth a try.