Saturday, 30 November 2013

Getting them speaking: questions

I've been working hard at speaking skills with my classes since September, and I feel like we've made progress.  Phonics wall? check. Speaking mat? check. Questions from pupils? Hmmm - confusion (and avoidance) has reigned. Generally, if it wasn't on the speaking mat or provided during the lesson, they were not used or they made no sense.  I doubt I'm alone in neglecting the art of question-forming. This hasn't happened on purpose - I've taught question forms, the boys often have to find out what questions mean, and yet, and yet... In this post, I want to think about how to teach questions, and then how to make the skill stick.

So what's tricky about questions?
Some of these remarks are more relevant to German than, for example, to French, but the general points remain valid.

For pupils who try to think in English first, questions are a nightmare.
  • Firstly, you have to ignore the "do".
  • Secondly, you have to remember to invert the verb and personal pronoun.
  • And THEN.. you need to convert the continuous present "Are you going.." to "go you.."

I've been revising questions with Y10 this week, and I've found these things effective:
  • Emphasising finding the verb and personal pronoun.
  • Drawing their attention much more than usual to the fact that "do" is to be ignored.
  • Tonnes and tonnes of practice exercises
  • And then.. my secret weapon:  Fredericke, my German visitor. People can't help themselves - they are curious (or nosey) by nature, and my Y10 class are no exceptions.  The Y10s had 5 minutes to ask as many questions as they could of Fredericke.  I asked her to score the number of follow-up questions they asked, and there was an edible prize for the winning team.
How did it go? Well, there were several "wie heißt du, Fredericke?" questions, and one table admitted that they asked a question where they hadn't understood the answer, and had simply nodded.  However, they all got a chance to ask questions, and they were rightly proud of the fact that they were able to ask questions, they were understood, and they (mostly) understand the answers.  They are still very dependent on their model questions.  The conversion of "Are you going.." into comprehensible German still seems to pose the biggest problem.

Making it stick.

I have been trying to work this through for a while.  The recent blogposts by Joe Kirby and David Fawcett have helped to crystalise some thoughts on helping the grammar points which we have taught stick. I have been guilty of assuming "job done" because I have taught something. In many ways, it is simple - use it or lose it.  I do feel that we de-skill our pupils by providing questions simply "because it's quicker" or by not giving them the opportunities to ask questions.  Making the TL the routine language in the classroom helps, as does revisiting the skill on regular occasions. Joe Kirby, drawing on work from Daniel Willingham, refers to "distributing practice" and "interleaving", which I found very useful.  I found a recent blog by @oldandrew where he argues for practice to be part of the path towards fluency in maths and some of his points about deliberate practice resonanted with me. This also tied in with Joe Kirby's further principle of "overlearning", i.e. practising for a further 20% worth of effort in to master the material. The issue of having enough practice is certainly one which needs addressing, but it needs something more.  The penny often only drops during more authentic speaking situations, such as group talk, or speaking to a "real life German", like my pupils did this week.  The practice was invaluable, but the application of it brought some of "lightbulb" moments for my pupils.

I hereby commit to making pupil form the questions I want them to use in speaking questions, and when I do "word scatter" starters, I will include question words to encourage them to form questions as well as the usual statements. I will also plan more group talk activities that require the pupils to devise questions. Momentum is the name of the game. You see, now I've written this in my blog, I have to do it :-)

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Catching the drifters

The drifters - they have been on my mind recently, especially in KS4.  You know the pupils I mean - the pupils who are in your peripheral vision rather than being firmly in your sights, like the obvious underachievers.  The pupils whose performance is a little lower than expectation, but doesn't stand out. I have come to the conclusion that I need to re-think my approach, so that I don't have to spend yet another month chasing after pupils who have drifted too far.

When I think of the pupils who fall into this category, there are often 2 underlying problems: either they have had their confidence dented, and have decided to take their foot off the pedal, or they have lost some of their motivation.  I have had several pupils with whom I have had conversations recently, and I've come away thinking that I had known that it wasn't quite right, but I had only done "surface" things, such as making them re-do a homework.  Missed opportunities.

Having just had our first assessment window, I'm currently feeding back to classes, and as well as picking out the underachievers, I need to do something to help the drifters.  The current vogue for "intervention" means that it's tempting to write down on the departmental action plan that X number of support sessions have been put in place for these pupils.  However, there are still only a finite number of hours in the day, and the last time I checked, this hadn't changed. So - what to do?

I already have "Catch Up Thursday" (snappy title, I think) for those who have been absent or whose homework / classwork wasn't up to scratch.  This does work, and needs to stay.

Thinking of those recent conversations, I don't think extra sessions is what is needed.  In fact, one particular pupil has already proved this.  He came to extra sessions targeted at his weaknesses - no impact.  I decided that it was his focus in lesson, and his strategic use of resources / classwork when completing homework which needed to change.  This pupil wasn't disruptive, he just wasn't making the most of lessons or homework. I talked to him about the impact his lack of focus had, and I set him some goals, and he has improved.  No extra sessions required.

Listening to the pupil
Find out if there is something that they're struggling with or that has dented their confidence. If so, that can be addressed, perhaps as part of a "closing the gap" lesson, as there will be others who would welcome the practice of a certain topic. Taking the time to speak to the pupil, finding out how they "tick" can be the key.  It can be all that is needed to help them realise what they need to know, or to realise that they aren't invisible, and that they matter.

Re-set their expectations, and set goals for classwork and homework
I have made a sheet to help structure their thoughts about what success would look like for them, and to help me discuss with them how to set their sights higher.
They are then going to have 3 goals to meet each lesson for the next 3 weeks - I'm calling it the Challenge Programme (cheesy, I know, but I couldn't come up with anything else)
New seating plans after the results should allow me to place with more highly-motivated pupils, who can also give discreet help where necessary, and show them how to work.  Reward postcard home if they improve their goals.  If there is no improvement, then we'll have to contact home, and put something more structured in place.

Teach lessons, keep expectations high. That's it. No extra sessions.

This isn't intended for the hard-core disaffected.  This is for the pupils who need a bit more direction and focus.  I will see whether this works, and blog about it later.

Using a teamgame to check understanding and improve learning

This is a game I played at the end of my Berlin Wall week with a beginner Yr 9 class.  We had been learning big numbers, but this could work with anything.  It's not a new idea, it's a tweak on stepping stones and other games, but I liked the way it worked.

The pupils had to get from "west" to "east".  They were divided up  into 2 teams, and the winners were the first team to get across.  The only way through was to get past the 8 guards (4 per team) by answering the question they had on their cards - these got progressively more difficult as they went on.  If they got the answer wrong, they were sent to "erste Hilfe" (first aid) with the explanations & reminders of the key points before they tried again.  Once they had got over the excitement of playing a game, it worked a treat.  The "guards" were suitably strict, and the boys hurried back to check the erste Hilfe.  I had to do relatively little, and the successful ones had the task of making up the biggest number they could.

What was interesting was that it had successfully helped to iron out misunderstandings, and once back in the classroom, the pupils were able to tell me which rules they needed to remember, and they used them in the subsequent exercises. I think the key to success, apart from the competition element, was the "erste Hilfe" section, where they could get their information and improving their understanding.  They then did a very standard information gap partner work exercise to get some key dates of events, then created a timeline.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Our aim as MFL teachers

Our aim?

To teach pupils in such a way that they become confident communicators in the foreign language based on an instinctive yet reflective understanding of how a language works.

I love this quote.  Sadly, I can't claim any credit for it:  it had been used at a conference and @garrymillsmfl had tweeted a photo of it.  It has since become my motto.

What does this mean for me and my pupils?

Reflective learners
Promoting "use what you know"
As an experienced linguist, I know how to simplify my language if I'm getting myself tied up in knots. Our pupils' reaction is to reach for google translate. Teaching and promoting this idea is very important, and can make a big difference. Teaching pupils how to make the most of "That is.." "Do you have..?" "It has..." is maybe a good starting point. I'm not sure I do this well enough at the minute - maybe I will return to this in a later post.

The great marking and feedback debate
Like every other school, we have been having a big drive on marking. The biggest change for me has been insisting on responses to the marking I have done in a much more methodical way - boys ticking my margin annotation when they find and correct a mistake, pupils re-drafting specific, highlighted sections. The art of re-drafting is difficult, and Their homework log in the front of their books has a column to record the "ebi", so that they can see if a pattern emerges.  They can also then use their most recent "ebi" as their target for the next piece of work.
Developing communcation

I did a questionnaire with my pupils at the end of last half-term, and as well as an understandable preoccupation with the mysteries of German word order, their other concerns were to do with questions and reacting to someone.  Now, unless they are going onto A-level, the skill of being able to hear a question and react is surely one of the key things we need to teach them.  Every non-linguist I meet seems to have a tale of horror of an attempted conversation where things have gone awry the minute the other person responded in the foreign language.
This is the plan for me:
Big push on how to form questions
It became apparent that the pupils need much more support with this. I know this is partly my fault - with so much focus on the ability to extend and develop answers, it has sometimes been easier to simply give the pupils the questions, but that doesn't help them.  They also need opportunities to practise forming and answering questions.That means I'm tweaking how I go about setting up pairwork, so that the question isn't handed to them on a plate. They also need some help with thinking about the correct response for a question.  Rachel Hawkes has many good suggestions, but this is a current favourite - put the answer up on the screen - what could the question be?
Practice, practice, practice...
...with highly-structured exercises and with looser, more free form exercises.  This is where the pupils can apply the structures, and have the opportunity for it to become more instinctive. I think I underestimate how much practice my pupils need to know the language instinctively, rather than simply theoretically.  Some of my GCSE pupils are about to embark on a speaking CA.  I have spent much time with the struggling pupils in this topic practising "weil" clauses with a rhythm until it begins to sound "normal".
Making use of visitors
I'm lucky to have an enthusiastic former pupil studying German who is willing to come in once a week, and for the next 7 weeks, I have a visiting German who is also coming in once a week.  This is an opportunity to tap into their curiousity and give them authentic situations.
This should also help with use of TL in the classroom.
Insisting on TL and supporting it
I have blogged previously about using speaking mats to support communication.  I introduced them this September, and they really work, but you still have to teach the language on there - the pupils won't use it properly without that, but once taught, they will make use of it, especially if you keep promoting it.
Using pictures
Asking the pupils (with prompts) to describe a picture is a good activity, not least because it often forces the pupils to think across several topic areas.  I think this has real potential, but I know I haven't made the most of it.  This is something I want to try.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Boys in the MFL classroom

I have taught in co-ed schools, but I am currently teaching in an all-boys' comprehensive school in the North of England.  This often raises eyebrows, especially with the general consensus being that boys don't really do languages.  Our experience is that boys do languages, and can do them well.  We may have an advantage having no girls, as it can't be seen as a "girly" subject, and boys can't hide behind the girls.  I'd like to share some of the observations I've made in the past few years.  Yes, there will be some generalisations, but I hope some of this might be useful.

Keep it short, keep it clear, keep it simple
I find boys less tolerant of waffle - eyes glaze over much quicker.  They want to learn what they need to, and they want to get on.  I think my instructions have become much clearer in the time I have been here.  They also value step-by-step instructions, and will switch off if things seem too convoluted. Don't make "busy" worksheets - if it's not clear, they will simply not use it, however, if they can see the steps clearly, they will generally respond.

Give them the nuts and bolts
Boys generally like to see how things work, how they fit together.  Give them the tools and understanding for this, and you have your slam dunk for progress. 

Getting them speaking
Boys are generally willing to speak  if they have the confidence. I find teaching phonics very important. They feel they can "have a go" - I have the important sounds very prominently on my learning wall, and they use it a lot.  The boys like to interact, and each table has a "speaking mat" on it, which emphasises phrases they can use with each other.  They enjoy learning how to agree and disagree, which also plays into their sense of humour.  By gradually introducing the different elements of group talk, I find you can model with them how to communicate with others.  Teaching them simple questions, such as "and you?", and giving one boy the job of keeping everyone involved allows them to learn basic conversation skills for any language.

Humour and imagination
Boys are often very sharp, and they love using humour. I sometimes use it when presenting vocabulary because it can grab their attention, and games such as making up nonsense sentences allows them to express themselves.  This can be used to your advantage, but be careful. Make sure that your classroom expectations have set clear boundaries.  Boys together can be also incredibly silly.  Also be aware that the class entertainer is often hiding some deep insecurities, and he needs to find ways to have a sense of achievement away from this persona which he has adopted. 
The boys have great imagination, and will use it, especially if it allows them to do something a bit gory or disgusting. They will also get involved in acting, role-play and they enjoy making videos, even using puppets. It brings some boys out of themselves, especially if they can take on another persona.

Points mean prizes - how to get them to develop their ideas
Sadly, I never get any work anymore where the title is underlined in sparkly gel pen, and one other battle I have is getting boys to develop their ideas. This requires several approaches - you need to develop their concept of how they can expand their ideas, however, they also need something very simple to hook them.  Boys are often very competitive, so any way of getting boys to score points works wonders.  I get them to score points for certain linguistic points - the more ambitious aspects score more points. They love being able to see the points accumulate.  This works for speaking and writing.

This is one way - I teach German, but I'm sure you can adapt:
1 point - und, denn, aber (simple connectives), sentences in the first person
2 points - connectives which require the verb to come next (jedoch - however etc), frequency words and adverbs of time, sentences with "we" or "they"
3 points - connectives which send the verb to the end of the clause, different tenses, adjectives with correct endings, verbs in the he/she forms, questions

The importance of re-drafting
I have many pupils who rush work, and hate checking their work.  That is where re-drafting becomes so important.  Devoting some class time to calm reflection on their work has a big impact.  It also models good study skills. Make sure the improvements are clearly targeted, and can be done in the time you've allowed.

Catching the boys who are losing heart
It's important to catch boys before they give up.  The re-drafting time in class gives me an opportunity to spend a few minutes with those boys, and show them that often there is an easy way to dig themselves out of a hole.  If you catch them as they wobble, they can respond well. Get feedback - a quick questionaire at the end of a half-term allows me to tweak my planning, and I'm sometimes surprised by the things the boys say they want more practice with.  I have a weekly "catch-up" session, which is for boys who have been absent, boys whose homework was not up to standard, or boys who need something going over.