As language teachers, we are all too familiar with the seemingly Sisyphean task we have chosen as a career: to instil a love for the language we teach in our students whilst developing their linguistic competence towards autonomy, to facilitate their understanding of why they are learning a language and what opportunities lie ahead if they seize that challenge, and finally, to provide them with enough success in their learning to balance out the frustration from what can feel like a never ending process of failed attempts, which is the only way to proficiency. It is a highly complex environment to navigate, for both teachers and learners, even more so when situated in highly Anglo-centric backgrounds, and when faced with divergent research findings on various Second Language acquisition methodologies on what proves to be most effective in the classroom.
Traditionally, we have been guilty of considering innate talent, or aptitude, to be the main factor in successful L2 acquisition. This misconception would allow us to predict students’ success, or failure, accordingly. This meant that our methods in class were mostly tailored to suit a finite number of students, who demonstrated these “aptitude” attributes (such as the ability to infer meaning, grammatical flair, a sensitive ear to phonemes, memory capacity, etc.) along with the motivation and determination to succeed. The way I trained as a French and Spanish teacher back in Swansea, Wales, back in the early 2000s, with the exclusive use of Target Language in the classroom and the clear veto of any use of English, most certainly confirmed that predicate. The cognitive factors at hand here were not addressed systematically in our methods; upon reflexion, I can clearly see that my training was designed to cater to a small portion of students who would be able to, not only process highly dense input through their overly able decoding and sound discriminating faculties, but also to synthesize complex grammatical concepts through abstract meaning and apply their newly acquired knowledge into their production of language. This was of course doomed to fail, and I very soon observed that such an approach lost me most of my students, who were discouraged, feeling highly anxious, and at times, completely overwhelmed with what I asked of them, especially when comparing themselves to the 2 or 3 students in the class who could keep up.
I believe this approach is what has built our reputation over the years as an impossible subject to learn, because in truth, it really was. How many times have we heard parents at teacher interviews confess they were “no good at languages” when they were at school, and that they wished they had continued with it rather than give up? To this day, children are still largely experiencing that feeling of hopelessness and that it is just “too hard”. And I agree. What we have been doing as language teachers is teach ourselves, or the impossible minority of students who possess the motivation and those abilities, and who will learn the language no matter what is thrown at them in class. I was one of those students at school. No matter what the method was, who the teacher was, I was passionate about language and I was determined to learn, so I experienced success regardless. Unfortunately, this left the vast majority of our students on the side of the road.
Another crucial element that contributed to this phenomenon throughout the last decades is the multiplicity of methodologies developed over the years, through developing academic research on second language and its acquisition. A constant evolution from the direct method, the audiolingual method, the communicative approach, the Task-Based Learning, the Content and Language Integrated Learning, a focus on interaction and transaction, an explicit teaching of grammar, a target language only approach: the abundance of suggestions was both extremely stimulating and confusing. There is often a feeling that we must reinvent the wheel with every new method that comes out, which led many practitioners to feel like they had no clear guidance on, or understanding of, how to best teach their students.
More and more, language teachers started to incorporate multiple approaches into their classrooms, based on what they observed to be effective. We started to use English purposefully to reinforce understanding of concepts and instructions with students, scaffolding into different layers what we exposed them to, in order to cater to every range of ability. We adopted the communicative approach combined with task-based learning assessment in order to contextualise their learning. We were striving to find the right balance between communication and explicit grammar teaching to facilitate analysis of language. A lot of thinking about learning and curriculum design was taking place, but there was no consistent approach across the board.
At my current school, back in 2016, we found ourselves at a crossroads. Multiple languages were on offer since Year 7, but we struggled with low numbers and retention in middle and senior school for some of them, and with many disengaged students throughout the years, despite highly experienced and passionate teachers. Our number one priority was to address students’ engagement and to stabilize numbers into sustainability. To that end, we introduced a carousel of languages in Year 7, where students study 2 languages throughout the year before selecting one to pursue in Year 8 (this would allow them to experience them first-hand, and not just randomly select a language without really knowing). We also introduced a national qualification in Year 9 and 10, the Certificate II VET in Applied Language, which focuses on both social and workplace competencies (for clarification, VET in Australia stands for Vocational Educational Training, which provides nationally accredited qualifications designed in partnership with industries and the government in an effort to train people with workplace skills and technical knowledge to help them advance their career). These measures meant less time to teach in Year 7, as we were now delivering 2 languages, and a high volume of prescriptive assessment tasks in Year 9 and 10. The challenge was enormous, but we had restored a sense of purpose to what we were doing, and soon, all teachers found themselves scrutinizing their curriculum and experimenting with a range of tools and methods, as we were committed to empowering all students to become the best language learners they could be. This is when Dr Conti came in.
Back in 2017, Dr Conti came to deliver his first workshop, and within the space of 3 hours, managed to open our eyes to his world of comprehensible input, working memory and thorough processing. In that time, he validated what we intuitively knew already: our syllabi were too full, and they were not effective. We did not leave room for recycling and we were throwing vocab list upon vocab list at our students, hoping that some would “stick”. The discussions that ensued from this moment not only radically changed our approaches, but they also made us better practitioners, in that we started to critically observe each element of our curriculum in order to decide whether it was truly necessary to build students’ competencies. We kept on using multiple teaching tools, but the pedagogy underpinning them became clearer. In brief, we started making room and we started embedding systematic recycling, knowledge organisers, extensive processing of language in all 4 skills, and communicative functions of language. It was a revolution.
But revolutions do take time, and a lot of arduous and consistent work across teams, in order to reach their objective. With a renewed sense of purpose underpinning our programs (with the carousel in Year 7 and the VET Certificate II in Year 9 and 10), change was possible. By the time Dr Conti came back to our school for his second workshop the following year, we were all eager to ask more specific questions about his MARS’EARS sequence, the transition from oral to written fluency, and how to best maximise class time for successful learning. We had started to see the shift in students’ engagement and participation in classes, at every step of the range of abilities. They were active, focused and very enthusiastic about the skills they were developing. The anxiety levels had dropped significantly as we recycled language thoroughly, as modelling through listening became our focus when introducing new content, and as thorough processing finally allowed students to internalise what we covered in class. Our students’ survey results were unanimous: they felt positive about learning a language, empowered to do so, and their self-esteem was soaring as a result. What more could we ask for?
Upon looking back at these past few years, I am in awe of my amazing colleagues for undertaking such a challenge and for seizing every opportunity to make their student’s experience better. This has been quite the journey, from overhauling our methodologies across all languages to training for VET delivery, and I could not have worked with more committed and passionate practitioners. I am also deeply grateful for Dr Conti’s support and influence in guiding our practice. His wealth of experience and practical approaches enabled us to trial and experiment his method very quickly, but more importantly, he facilitated this drastic change to our teaching through saying out loud what everybody thought quietly: less is more, and with the right approach, far more effective. In future, we will continue to use an evidence-based evaluation of our programs, to develop teachers’ skills through training, and to collect feedback from all our stakeholders, but so far, results are staggering.
If we are to truly impact our students’ lives through our teaching, we must empower them all to believe in their own potential, and we must enable them to experience systematic success in our lessons. Only then will they open up to the possibility of making a second language part of who they are as they continue to grow as young adults. After all, Sisyphus did prove to the Gods that by embracing life’s challenges as our own, we give them their true value and significance.
Chloe Briand is the Head of Languages at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne, Australia, where she leads a team of 20 staff across 4 languages (French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese). With over 17 years of teaching practice across 4 countries and her experience of a wide range of school environments, academic excellence and innovation drive her curriculum design, along with pioneering approaches to teaching languages, through authentic contexts and experiential learning.