Sunday, 7 December 2014

Stretch and challenge in MFL

" Stretch and challenge" - one of Ofsted's obsessions, and rightly so - who wants pupils who aren't learning to the best of their ability?  As linguists, we want pupils to be adventurous and to use their knowledge to express themselves.  After all, it's what helped us fall in love with language learning. The way I see it, stretch and challenge is not just for the most able; it is about how we set the learning climate in our classroom. Of course,it will look different depending on which pupils you have in front of you, but this is not about an add-on. So - how do we achieve this in class?

Deploying some very prosaic (but effective) basics can help us.  The most fundamental basic is to know your pupils, and their prior learning. This, however, allows us to be creative with how we introduce vocabulary. This week, I was able to introduce the perfect tense in French to a weaker set of pupils through an account of a weekend in Paris using regular "er" verbs.  I knew that they were already familiar with the verbs in the text, although not in the perfect tense, and within the context of the passage, they were able to show understanding, and then mine it for key verbs in the perfect tense.  Parallel texts (one side in the Target Language (TL), the other in English) also give pupils the change to understand texts that little bit beyond their current level. Equally, using a text with lots of cognates/familiar vocabulary which support pupils in working out the meaning of new language is a very effective technique. Give one/get one or quiz/quiz/trade can also be a good way of reinforcing independent use of phonics by pupils, as well as reinforcing other co-operative language. These strategies not only get beyond the sterile listen/repeat chorus and its single-word stranglehold, but they get pupils engaging with longer texts, which is far more satisfying for the learners, and already gives them that sense of progress.

The use of target language is something repeatedly raised by Ofsted as an issue. Some things are more difficult in the TL however, there is much which can be done in the TL. If I fall off the TL waggon, I run a competition in class for the best use of the TL - this boosts the pupils' awareness, and mine. We have a speaking mat to support this, and it is part of our routine to get them out at the beginning of the lesson.  Progressing with it is often tricky, and much of it comes down to teaching questions, and revising them at regular intervals. Having the question words displayed prominently in the classroom helps to prompt and support.  Then, when you ask your pupil where their book is, they can understand and respond, if you have been able to point at the relevant question word on the board. If not all the lesson is possible in the TL, it is better to "chunk" it - so there are clear segments in English, clear segments in the TL.  Swapping between the 2 just encourages the pupils to wait for the English translation.

Speaking is not just confined to classroom routine.  In topic-related work, it is important that pupils have the opportunity to work beyond tightly-scripted dialogues, although these clearly have a place in familiarising pupils with new language.  This is where Group talk comes into its own.  Having an unscripted conversation that is still supported allows pupils the freedom to express themselves and try things out for themselves, and gives them the feeling of having "real" conversations, and can really boost confidence. It also means they have to listen carefully to each other, and more able pupils can be encouraged to extend their responses.

Speaking also includes reading out loud, which helps with phonics.  A favourite game in my classes is "rhubarb".  In a group, one person starts reading.  If they make a mistake spotted by someone else, the challenger says "rhubarb" and says what it should be. If the group agree it is right, they get to continue the reading.  Points are awarded for every sentence read successfully, one point if they are challenged unsuccessfully, one point if they have challenged successfully and are going to take on the reading.

Here's a question: how often do your classes (even your beginners) do extended writing as opposed to drills and sentences?  This is one very obvious stretch and challenge opportunity which should be done regularly. If the most talented are shown how to use dictionaries and verb tables, they can really fly with regular practice.  Remember all those strategies you use with GCSE classes?  Are you using them in KS3 to promote a range of language.  If not, why not? Our learners often feel very constrained by what they feel they can say, but a learning mat with prompts and suggestions can help them develop and extend their ideas.  Most pupils don't want to say that everything is "super", it's just that it's the only thing that occurs to them. Creative writing and poems also give pupils a change to experiment and learn to love the language.

Translation is going to become ever more present, given the changes to KS3 and GCSE, and it's true that it does help pupils do some detailed work, and can be an opportunity to meet new language.  It is important, however, that the pupils then get to use some of that new language in their own work.  One of the best pieces of advice I was given as a young teacher was to exploit one text in as many different ways as possible. Too often I have seen opportunities wasted to help pupils build on their knowledge by not doing that final additional step where they produce something of their own based on the language. As linguists, we are magpies, nicking lovely shiny expressions and using them for ourselves.  We should help the next generation do that too!


There can be more to stretch and challenge for listening than simply giving out a differentiated worksheet, although that still has its place. Songs are a rewarding place to start, and give some cultural flavour too.  If you are working with a textbook's recording, why not get pupils to make shorthand notes/ draw symbols, then use the language to report back to a partner? Rachel Hawkes suggests giving pupils a transcript, then saying it out loud to the class with some changes.  Pupils then need to identify where the differences are, transcribe the new words and then they can use them for themselves. Listening is often a bolt-on task or a task to see if they have retained the new vocabulary.  Why not integrate it into the lesson more completely?

I have to admit to feeling a bit exhausted after writing all this. This is not a tick-list for every lesson, but using some of these ideas some of the time can help you provide challenge for all.