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.