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!