CONTInued Professional Development-A daily routine I’ll be forever grateful for – By London-based language educator Adam Fletcher

London-based Deputy-Head of MFL, MA graduate and talented linguist Adam Fletcher writes about his experience with Contification in an inner city area school where French, Spanish and Italian are taught to children mostly of afro-caribbean ancestry.

In the scorching Summer of 2018, July to be precise, the daily occurrence of close to thirty degree heat temperatures had come to be expected not hoped for, the yellowing and almost disappearing grass across the country left the Earth looking tired,  the World Cup was in full swing, and the scent of Summer had already become one that had been in the air since late April. I took what seemed like a marathon 5-hour round trip from my flat in South-East London, crossing the city, taking the train from Kings’ Cross to Cambridge, followed by a bus ride to the quaint, picturesque village of Swavesey, who had a very special visitor in town.

I wouldn’t say that was the start of my trip towards Contification-I had been putting into practice many of the activities he had been introducing to us on a frequent basis. But certainly it was my first taster for understanding the myriad of ways we could use sentence builders, and Gianfranco’s LAM approach began to make real sense. I could see where these afforementioned activities (Mind-readers, sentence chaos, and sentence-stealers) fit into the greater scheme of things, and how they could be incorporated into medium to long-term planning. The warm welcome given to me by the staff at Swavesey, coupled with the relaxed, light-hearted nature of the event, made me feel that the information wasn’t being “imposed” on me, but gently served on a silver teaspoon. When I was ready for more, I would politely ask for it.

Terminology such as pushed output, divided attention, flooded input, the episodic buffer, the noticing hypothesis, high surrender universals, pop-up grammar, LAM, RAM, EPI, MARSEARS along with a whole host of other acronyms,the notion of meaning vrs form and how it affects learned attention, the order of knowledge acquisition (does procedural knowledge precede declarative or vice-versa). All of these notions would previously been dismissed as mere jargon, had it not been for the consistent, indefatigable and passionate way that these terms have been introduced to us practitioners in a progressive manner. With every CPD delivered, with every blog and book written, with every article shared, this methodology begin to make more and more sense, and MFL teachers who adopt it have been empowered to wear that armour to defend themselves against their detractors, and those from above who may feel the need to impose their own agendas upon MFL departments across the country.

What has been so refreshing about the approach, is that, while being research-informed, it sits comfortably across contexts and situations. No more has this been highlighted than in this current period of remote learning, where Conti lessons have been the platform to provide “business-as-usual” lessons. In some ways the approach has been enhanced, thanks to the increased clarity of the teacher’s voice, the use of the chat function substituting mini-whiteboards and giving a clearer, quicker access to in-class data (if it’s typed, it’s easier to read!), and teachers have been given more scope to provide receptive input, and clearly plan and modify that comprehensible input needed for students to acquire the language.

Let’s consider many of the key players on the Twittersphere and pedagogy world, and hot topics imposed on us across the school. Tom Sherrington and his book on Rosenshine’s principles, Doug Lemov’s TLAC techniques (cold-call, no opt-out, positive-framing, do it again to name but a few), Cognitive Load Theory (Baddeley/Sweller) and Dual Coding (Caviglioli) and what that actually looks like in MFL, the Writing Revolution and its focus on phrasal/sentence constructions, Brown and Roediger’s testing effect in Make it Stick (2014), and the emphasis on Retrieval Practice presented to us by Kate Jones (2019). Gianfranco has carefully conditioned us to bring MFL forward into this world (ahead of these trends in most cases), enabling MFL to sit comfortably alongside the wider-school ethos and have their say, and stay ahead of the game. This input, coming first from Gianfranco and co. and their readings, has been pivotal in preparing MFL in reflecting upon these advancements in cognitive science, and ensured that we are able to tick those boxes when presenting our findings to the wider-school context.

The evolution of the approach since when I first was acquainted with Conti and Smith in around 2016 is palpable. In 2017, I tweeted Gianfranco this question:

Evidently, In the space of 4 years, MFL has come so far. The biggest change came upon the release of Breaking the Sound Barrier (2019). By that time, so many practitioners had been exposed to the approach, following a marathon year of CPDs, and were already putting the approach into practice in their classrooms. What the release of the book did, was solidify the foundations of those CPDs, via repeated exposure to the messages and topics covered in his CPDs. Further CPDs on curriculum planning, and a developing understanding of the MARSEARS approach, highlighted to me more and more how the integrated skills approach and aural-first approach to providing input would work in the long-term. The use of English in sentence builders would at first raise some eyebrows, but a greater understanding of the rationale provided by C.J Dodson’s (1967) bilingual method, reintroduced by Butzkamm (2009) would go some way towards helping to understand the exploitation of the L1 as a means to boosting L2 output (Dual-Coding anyone?).

The practical ideas and theory came flooding in thereafter, with Danielle Warren’s 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers providing another great accompaniment to the approach, and providing a resource that hitherto had been dominated by the TEFL world, but never explored by MFL. We are at a pivotal moment in MFL, where the launch of Conti, along with Vinales and Ezequiel’s sentence builders series is providing us with the opportunity to tie-in homework to reflect our classroom practice, boost our lessons, and ensure that repeated exposure to content via a varied repertoire of tasks enables our learners to develop the proceduralised knowledge of the language to then be unpicked declaratively when the learner is ready. As Nation and Webb (2007) state, the biggest challenge for teachers when students are learning through meaning-focused input is supporting comprehension, because if students cannot understand the input, then they feel they may feel discouraged from continuing to learn this way.” In increasing the frequency of encounters with the language, then this is going to go a long way to enabling students to develop their self-efficacy.

This is why I have been delighted recently, to be able to use the wonderful web platform that is Textivate. In copying my narrow-reading and listening activities into the machine, creating parallel texts along with that, see Martin Lapworth describe how here.

I have been able to ensure that whatever content has been covered in the classroom has been revisited outside the classroom. The site also provides text-to-speech recognition, which provides the necessary aural-input to provide dual-coding. With that, I was more enthused when I found out that the Language-Gym will be launching a sentence-builders website, in collaboration with Textivate. This exploitation of technology to complement the input provided in lesson is a game-changer, and goes some way in closing the circuit for LAM enthusiasts like myself. 5 years on, I find that what initially was some practical ideas to help catch the enthusiasm of my learners has now become my teaching ethos. Learning, AFL, homework, assessment, instruction, input and output cycles are now becoming seamlessly intertwined. The tools are there for you, it is now a case of building and adapting the methods and fitting them to what works for you and your learners. As Dylan Wiliam’s mantra of “everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere”, Contifying your approach is certainly a journey that will inevitably take years and years of repeated encounters of the theory and practice it promotes, but there is always something within that approach that you can make work for you. Those first encounters in Swavesey were definitely the beginning of a most rewarding journey for me that CONtinues to thrill and enthral.

Bibliography

Butzkamm, W., 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL

classrooms: death of a dogma, Language Learning Journal, 28:1, 29-39.

Dodson, C.J., 1967. Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method. London: Pitman.

Webb, S. and Nation, I., 2017. How Vocabulary Is Learned. Oxford University Press.

Implementing MARS EARS in lessons and across the department – by Aurélie Lethuilier

I have taught French and Spanish since September 2000 when I officially became an NQT and I had the privilege of becoming Curriculum Leader at the school I currently work in, in September 2006. As a teacher and Curriculum Leader, I have always been keen to try out new strategies to develop teaching and learning across the department and to ensure that our students get the best pedagogy that they deserve.

We had been using the Sentence Builders for a while (I think we called them Learning Mats or Maps at the time) but we felt that there was more that we could do with them and that we were not exploiting them enough. Then, four years ago, I came across the picture of an activity on Facebook that I had never seen before – this picture was of “Sentence Stealer”. Being very curious and inquisitive by nature, I read the rationale behind this activity and thought I would give it a go and this was the start of a gradual but highly rewarding journey.

This is my experience as a teacher and Curriculum Leader and I hope this will help you in your journey.

  1. Start on a small scale

I decided to try the new activities I was coming across with one group only until I got more confident using them. At this stage, I was not aware of the MARS EARS sequence. I mixed the new activities with the ones that the students were used to, to introduce them gradually.

From the start, the students were hooked – it was new, it was fun, it was different, and they were learning and rapidly developing in confidence. Even the normally shy ones would be happy to give these activities a go.

The Sentence Builders became more relevant and were used very thoroughly. The language was repeated in a variety of ways and was quickly remembered by the students.

The turning point for me was when this particular class asked “Can we do this one again tomorrow?”, “What do you have in store for us today?”, “What new activity have you found that we are going to try out?” – they were fully on board, so it was time to move forward and share the approach with my other groups and the department.

  • Changes with one year group at a time.

After trying a variety of activities, I decided to look into the work and research that Dr Gianfranco Conti had done over the years and started reading his blogs and that’s when I came across the MARS EARS sequence. The rationale and logic behind it made complete sense.

When I decided to implement the sequence with the Schemes of Learning (SoL) we had at the time, it soon became clear that we had far too much content and that we needed to change our SoL. It is always a scary thought, as you suddenly feel like you are not covering all that should be covered but it is like driving a car for the first time – it looks scary but it can be done.

I decided to start from the bottom and work our way up, one year group at a time. So our Y7 SoL got revamped first and the following year, it was our Y8 SoL. It was soon becoming clear that less was more: the students could remember chunks, they were confident in speaking and writing the language and they were gradually moving away from their Sentence Builders. “Stickability” from recycling was happening! This year, the Y9 SoL is getting some serious decluttering!

Our Sentence Builders got revamped too and the amount of vocabulary was reduced thus really focusing on the chunks and key structures. When our students ask us for extra vocabulary, we encourage them to use a dictionary to look up new words that could fit in the Sentence Builders thus developing their own vocabulary and dictionary skills. However, this normally happens when we get to the EARS part of the sequence, as we want them to be able to manipulate the new language before we introduce new words or chunks.

To facilitate the planning stage for myself and my department, I have created a document which is organised into the MARS EARS sequence with activities for each part and each skill. This has reduced the planning time, especially when you are better acquainted with each activity. As each group is different, you might spend more time on a section of the sequence with one group.

The blogs written by Dr Gianfranco Conti and Mr Dylan Viñales have also been an amazing source of inspiration and to this day I still refer to them – I actually have a printed copy of them! I have also purchased the books by Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith (Breaking the Sound Barrier, The Language Teacher Toolkit, Memory – what every language teacher should know) to get an even better understanding. I also purchased the Language Gym books in French & Spanish. It seems like a lot but these are valuable resources.

  • What does it look like in the classroom?

The following happens over a series of about 6 lessons depending on the groups.

When we start a new topic, I like to spend a whole lesson on MODELLING / AWARENESS RAISING and I use activities such as Ghost Repetition and Faulty Echo to get the students to identify and become familiar with the different sounds.

Then, I will spend time on the RECEPTIVE PROCESSING PHASE – lots of repetition using Sentence Stealer, Sentence Chaos, Listening Slalom (too many activities to list them all). Students are flooded with the language and that is when their confidence increases, as the language is constantly being recycled.

Following this, we move on to the STRUCTURED PRODUCTION – we continue to recycle chunks but this time we are gradually moving away from the Sentence Builders to get them ready for being more spontaneous. One of my favourite activities is “Read, Recall and Rewrite” but there are many to choose from during that phase.

Finally, we move on to the EARS phase (which I think we still need to develop further as a department) – we are continuing to develop “fluency and spontaneity through gradually less controlled but planned communicative tasks” so that students become autonomous. The “4, 3, 2 technique” is a great speaking task to do here but again so many to choose from.

Putting this sequence in place has meant:

  • Full engagement from students of all abilities
  • Much better progression within the lesson and from one lesson to another
  • Increased participation in class
  • Increased confidence
  • Better use of the language
  • Increased accuracy
  • Better grasp of the grammar when seen more “formally” in the EARS part of the sequence
  • Less anxiety for students who might not see Languages as an easy subject

I also include activities from amazing practitioners who I follow on Twitter, but I make sure that they fit in the sequence.  

  • How do you get your department on board?

Whenever I come across an idea, I like to try it first before I suggest it to the department.

I have always been fortunate to have worked and work with teachers who are forward thinkers and open-minded and who have embraced the “contification” of the lessons. We have spent a lot of time in departmental meetings discussing the sequence, reviewing and improving our SoL as well as our Sentence Builders, developing activities etc…

The department did spend some time coming to see me in lessons to see what it looked like in practice before they started to use the MARS EARS sequence in their own lessons.

We have not used a textbook at KS3 for years, as we found the content dry and the activities not relevant and not adapted to our students. We prepare all of our resources ourselves and share them to reduce workload (but they are then adapted to our individual groups). At KS4, we have the book recommended by the exam board but we use it more for reference and again we prepare our own tasks. Therefore, I started off by sharing a lot of my MARS EARS resources with my department and now the sharing is across the department, not just from me.

I am also a very enthusiastic person so whenever you get me started on the topic, I am off! This does help when implementing changes in a department.

It is also great when you have trainee teachers, as you can get them on board straight away.

Of course, flexibility is key as to what activities we use and no two lessons are the same, as I want the teachers to keep their individuality but whatever lesson you go into, the MARS EARS sequence is in place.

Conclusion

Is it a lot of work to start with?

Yes, hence why I started on a small scale and only focussed on one year group at a time. Get your team on board as soon as possible, share the work, share the resources.

Is it worth it?

Definitely. Just to see how pupils react and interact makes all the hard work worth it. Recycle and improve previous activities every year, include new ones the following year so that you develop a bank of resources.

Will you soon see the benefits?

Absolutely! But remember that changes don’t happen overnight! We have worked on this for 4 years now and we are still reviewing and improving. I have now been teaching for 21 years (so 17 years when I started this journey) and like most teachers, I have always been passionate about my work and it is never too late to try something new and to review your pedagogy. The students will benefit from it in the end and this is what matters the most.

Scottish educator Sonja Fedrizzi on her implementation of MARS EARS in her classes

French is not that hard after all- by Sonja Fedrizzi

When your S2 (year 8) students keep asking you to play yet another round of “Mind Reader”, “Trap Door” or “Sentence Stealer”, you know as a Modern Languages teacher, you are onto something. In my case, it has been the gradual introduction of Gianfranco Conti’s pedagogical framework called “MARS EARS”. The reason I say gradual is because sustainable changes to one’s teaching methods such as Conti’s do not happen overnight. They require thorough planning, the creation of resources and time to reflect on your progress. Luckily, I could rely on the generosity of other language teachers, who shared their knowledge and resources through social media to get me off to a good start.

We’ve all faced this problem, no matter which set (ability level) you teach, there will always be students in whom it seems particularly difficult to ignite the “language spark”. Statements like “it’s too hard” and “I will never speak the language fluently” are all too common. As a consequence, engagement in the class will be mixed. The stop-start nature of school, and frequent absences due to the Covid-19 pandemic only made this worse throughout 2020. These difficulties prompted me to go “full Conti” for the first time this year for some of my classes, starting with a lower-set S2 French class. I’ve long been using specific Conti activities, and they have been received well by all levels of students. This year, however, I experienced the full range of benefits of Conti’s method in particular for ‘levelling up’ lower ability students. I started my journey by delivering a first unit according to The MARS EARS cycle, which I would like to outline here.

MODELLING: With all of the Covid-19 restrictions in place, modelling sounds through sentence builders and tasks like “Faulty Echo” and the “Mind Reading” activity presented me with the first hurdle. Wearing a mask when modelling new chunks of language is almost impossible, which is why a solution had to be found quickly. I opted for video recordings of myself that I would then show in class to my students. My class took well to that and showed great readiness to copy new sounds. As neither choral speaking nor singing was an option due to Covid-19 guidelines, my students recorded themselves at home either on their phones or using the in-built recording function in Microsoft’s ClassNotebook. I subsequently gave them feedback through voice-recordings, using the app https://vocaroo.com/, modelling the sounds correctly that they mispronounced. It took a while to overcome the digital hurdles, but it was worth it.

AWARENESS RAISING: Moving into the stage of awareness raising felt natural and was, quite frankly, a lot of fun. Making sounds in a foreign language can be daunting and uncomfortable for many learners. Losing face in front of peers can become a huge obstacle when trying out new sounds. I therefore included activities where students could record themselves at home speaking in funny voices, for example in the voice of a robot or a mouse. In hindsight, I believe that the stage of awareness raising helped me bond the most with my students. They shared their thoughts on different varieties of English, taught me a number of local expressions I hadn’t come across before and readily engaged in phonics activities. We had lots of chats and the fact that they could share their expertise with me seemed to really empower them. 

RECEPTIVE PROCESSING: During this phase, also called the LAM/RAM phase, I included a set of Conti classics in almost every lesson: “Listening slalom”, “Sentence Stealers” and “Spot the differences”. I made sure not to overload my students with unknown sounds and was consciously sticking to the recommendation of having 98% comprehensible input. Reading texts and looking for mistakes in their L1 did at times prove more difficult, which was certainly due to low literacy skills in their L1. However, being able to spot mistakes in English and getting praised for their achievements gave many of my students a huge boost in their self-esteem, which in turn, made them keener to have a go the next time.

STRUCTURED PRODUCTION: The “pushed-output” phase was perhaps the trickiest to get right, but it ended up having a huge payoff. I was somewhat doubtful of making my students produce the target language, even if heavily structured. Would they cope, would they disengage? They didn’t. Thanks to popular games such as “Trapdoor”, “Speaking Ladders” and “Sentence Chaos” students were able to gradually be weaned off their sentence builders and started saying chunks of French. By that point, I realised that their self-efficacy had increased, and they were thus more willing to give it a go.

EXPANSION:  This phase had another few surprises in store for me. A grammar lesson with students with below average literacy skills in their L1 seemed risky business as I knew I would not be able to hold their attention for long. Eventually, I decided to let them discover the rules of the “l’article partitif” by exposing them to a number of different shopping scenes yet always including the same structures. When a few students started drawing their own conclusions, asking me “So Miss, so does that mean that when the food item is feminine you have to say, ‘de la’?”, I knew that my deductive approach had worked.

AUTONOMY, ROUTINISATION AND SPONTANEITY: These stages,which include a variety of un-scaffolded speaking activities, such as “Speed-Dating”, “Pyramid Translation” and the “Market Place” (which we played on https://whiteboard.fi/ ), followed. There came a point where my students started experimenting with chunks of the language. Not all of them at first but once the more reluctant learners saw how rewarding it was to “show off” their knowledge of French in a quickfire translation (on the app https://spiral.ac/ ) more and more of them engaged. My highlight was definitely a comment by a dyslexic student. After yet another “Mosaic Reading Translation”, he called out “Miss, French is not that hard after all”.

Ultimately, all my students passed their oral assessment. Two of them asked to redo their speaking assessment as they felt they could do better, which they eventually did. For me, this was a huge breakthrough as their self-efficacy and self-esteem had clearly improved. I do not know if my students will ever need their acquired French in a real-life context. What I do know though is that the implementation of MARS EARS with the focus on LAM (and RAM) through lexicogrammar, gave them the confidence to try something that they had written off as being too difficult.

I am convinced that through the continuous recycling of sentence builders, my lower-set French class built up the confidence to engage in activities as they did not feel overwhelmed by endless lists of vocabulary and tasks, they were not yet ready for. Most importantly though, I know that the Conti-method combined with my own ideas of delivering them using a range of modern digital tools has given my students a sense of achievement and the motivation to apply themselves to task that had seemed “too hard”.

Sonja has been an MFL teacher for thirteen years, teaching all levels of French, Spanish, German and EAL in Austria, Australia and now Edinburgh, Scotland. Responding to the pandemic’s challenges, Sonja has enthusiastically researched, applied, and shared, a range of digital-age teaching resources that align with the Conti method.