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.
- 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.
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.