This is the third post in our series of articles written by experienced language educators who have decided to adopt my approach or aspects of it. This post is by Heather Morgan, a very experienced teacher, with many years as Head of Languages in the bag, many of which in a great Worcester school, The Chantry School, in which the MFL team have wholeheartedly embraced E.P.I.
“Contification in practice” by Heather Morgan
I have been teaching languages for 15 years in a small rural comprehensive in Worcestershire. I have worked with some fantastic colleagues there, both in the MFL department and the wider school community.
About two to three years ago I started following posts about MFL teaching on Facebook, started reading blogs and I also purchased the book
“The Language Teacher Toolkit” by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti
I was absolutely fascinated by the research which Gianfranco had done regarding the acquisition of language. Lots of things which I had noticed in my own language learning and also in my experience of teaching languages, suddenly made sense!
As a Head of Department for many years, it had always dismayed me that when I came to analyse the GCSE results, Listening was the skill where pupils seemed to fare the worse (especially in French).
So with this is mind I decided to see if we could incorporate some of Gianfranco’s ideas into our teaching in KS3 in the hope that it will bolster the confidence and therefore the results of our KS4 pupils (and also into KS5, although we do not have a Sixth Form at our school).
Around this time, we had just employed a new colleague – a compatriot of Gianfranco (Italian native speaker – Ambrogio De Santis) and he also was keen to embrace the ideas of Gianfranco; so, we set about “Contify-ing” some of our work. As with all things in teaching, we could not do everything at once so we each focused on a particular group – for me this was Year 8 French.
At this time, we were also very fortunate to be given one hour per fortnight’s timetable dedicated to our own CPD. This meant that I could read around the research (but to be honest I am still getting my head around some of the specialised vocabulary) and also spend some of my time on specific Conti planning. I also invested some of our CPD budget making sure that each of the MFL teachers had the opportunity of attending a CPD session with Gianfranco.
So, these are some of the things we have learnt, and are learning, along the way:
- Establishing and embedding a key number of universals within the KS3 SOW enables recycling and interleaving e.g.
|UNIVERSAL 1||· j’ai / je n’ai pas de/ il y a / il n’y a pas de
This universal is at the very start of Year 7 (with school bag items, family members, pets etc.) but it is recycled many times through Year 8 and Year 9 as well.
- Using sentence builders at the start of each block of work introduces patterns (or reinforces patterns) and enables progress.
- Using sentence builders means that there is lots of scaffolding for weaker learners, but you can also stretch the more able learners.
- Using a variety of activities which follow the MARS/EARS structure (e.g. sentence stealers / mind readers / delayed dictation / faulty echo / oral ping-pong/ shading in narrow reading / narrow translation) motivates the pupils.
Initially it seems like it is a lot of work to prepare a series of lessons based on Gianfranco’s principles – certainly the first time that both Ambrogio and I prepared one, it took hours. However, once you have the formats for the sentence builders and activities, it takes very little time. Also, we have found that the same 9-12 sentences are used in lots of the activities (e.g. Strip Bingo / Blind OXO). This fits in with the maxim that there should be 95% comprehensible input allowing pupils to thoroughly process the language being taught.
When we had a PGCE student with us last term, she had to produce a resource for one of her assignments. We advised her to produce a MARS/EARS PowerPoint with at least 2 activities for each stage. This means that she has a blueprint which she can use for any block of work. When I caught up with her again at a Gianfranco Conti CPD session organised at our school, she told me that she had scored very highly in this assignment!
The pupil voice which we have conducted over the last 18 months is very encouraging: pupils find the sentence builders useful and really enjoy a lot of the activities which take them on their journey. Several pupils said that the constant modelling of the language made it stick in their heads and some of them said they could “see” the sentence builders in their head. This means that they feel more confident and willing to have a go at speaking!
The progress which we have made since our initial foray into the world of Conti teaching, is that we think much more carefully about the sequence of the learning and activities. If I’m honest, at the start it was just a series of activities merged together! Now we are much more aware of where each activity fits in the MARS/EARS sequence.
This year we have tried to make our summative assessments be more spontaneous rather than the rote learning of long passages which a lot of our pupils used to rely on. This has certainly worked for our higher ability pupils and by paring it right down for our weaker pupils, they have also been able to achieve a level of spontaneity.
We have tried to take on board the “less is more” mantra but we also acknowledge that there is somewhat of a dichotomy with this and the very content heavy status of the current GCSE. Our aim is to improve fluency and spontaneity in our three year Key Stage 3 and then consolidate in Key Stage 4.
The fluency and spontaneity of some of our pupils in Year 8 and 9 is very encouraging and it is such a shame that this could now be hindered by the lockdown caused by the Corona virus. However, in our on-line lessons we are trying to take on board some of Gianfranco’s ideas of using reading as modelling to try to offset this.
Heather Morgan (former Head of Languages at The Chantry School, Worcestershire). Having loved learning languages in my small secondary school in Wales, I was determined to further my studies in languages at University. I chose a course which allowed me to study three languages simultaneously and gained a BA (Hons) in Modern Languages from Leicester University in 1986.
Over the years, I have used my knowledge of languages whilst working for an international warehousing and distribution company, for the management services section of local government, and for the sales and administration department for an international china and porcelain company. I retrained as a MFL teacher 15 years ago and I am able to teach French, German and Italian. I have recently decided to work part-time to help my husband with his business. We have also brought up three children – all now flown the nest!