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.
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.