Sunday, 9 June 2013

Teacher talk, pupil talk

Talking - it's what us linguists do.  It's one of the four skills we attempt to develop in our students, yet Ofsted frequently remarks that the use of Target Language (TL) by teachers and pupils is still not universally well done.  I have to admit, I have my good spells ...and not so good spells. Then there is the issue of limiting teacher talk.  Whilst I agree with the maxim that you learn by doing, I'm still trying to find the balance.  The following comments are observations that I've made during my tussles over this topic.

Last week, I was being observed by a visitor as I guided my Year 10s through the vagaries of German word order.  Although the first section of the lesson was interspersed with short burst of partner work as the pupils worked out the rule and got used to the language, it was very teacher-centred.  As I was teaching, I worried about this.  Then I looked at the pupils.  They were gaining in confidence with 2 new structures, and as the lesson progressed, I was able to step back, and Group Talk was able to take place.  This scaffolding is crucial.  The pupils still need a firm platform from which to launch themselves.  There is a relationship of trust between you and the pupils, and this should not be under-estimated; neither should the time it takes pupils to feel confident with an unfamiliar structure.  The pupils surveys we did in the Autumn Term highlighted this for me.  Webofsubstance's recent article on the topic of teacher talk put it nicely with his distinction between "telling" and "explaining".  I would like to add "guiding" to set of terms.  I don't, however, teach every lesson like that, and here we come a crucial element: the approach you take has to fit the content and the needs of your pupils.  I have no wish to be the expert holding forth at the front of a group of passive pupils - I want them to think for themselves.  I also want to provide them with the tools to do it.

An MFL classroom which is too teacher-centred does have a damaging side affect.  Pupils in such classrooms feel much less confident asking questions.  They are not used to it, except in highly-scripted situations, which in no way help them to survive in any form of authentic interaction.  How many adults do you speak to who relay stories of the panic they felt when their carefully crafted sentence is met with an unintelligible response from a native speaker?  The art of sustaining a conversation, which requires questions, is something which needs practice.  This is where Group Talk can help.  With support from a learning mat, pupils can begin to have more spontaneous conversations within a structured setting.  They can become more used to the expectation of asking questions, and slowly learn the social and collaborative skills.  I also like to use "speaking bingo cards" as way of encouraging a range of contributions.  I shall try to put the link to an example at the bottom of the page.  Bear with me - this is my first every blog post and I'm still learning! A learning mat can also help to sustain the use of TL between pupil and teacher. It's not easy, but it's worked better than sheets in books, and I simply don't have wall space for every phrase I would need.  One other strategy which has worked has been the use of visitors to the classroom - native speakers, visitors from the partner school, even students studying German - anyone who gives me an opportunity to give them a taste of that authentic interaction.  These are all elements which I hope to develop over the next academic year.  Wish me luck!

This is the link to the TES website for my speaking mat

And this is one version of my speaking bingo card, mainly KS4