Not a smooth or a straight-line path – Kati Varela on her ‘bumpy’ journey to Contification

I cannot recall with certainty the exact year I came across Conti’s approach to teaching languages. I imagine it must have been through Twitter. I do remember reading several of his blog posts every so often with interest and finding his ideas making a lot of sense. Yet, applying his ideas to my teaching of French and Spanish hasn’t been a smooth or straight-line path.

For instance, I didn’t quite understand the idea of the sentence builders and, in fact, did not like it much initially. They seem cluttered and aesthetically unappealing. Yet, after going to one of his workshops in Sydney a few years back, I decided to create a couple for my Year 9 students at the time with the purpose of getting them talking about events in the past.

I also tried a few other activities I had gotten from the workshop with several classes and was excited to see they were effective scaffolds to help my students do more speaking in class. In the following years, I continued reading his blog posts and bought the book The Language Teacher Toolkit co-written with Steve Smith. I only took the time to read half of it back then, and I am not ashamed to admit

I saw the strategies as fun and useful, but I was not really applying the MARS EARS sequence to my teaching overall, nor did I probably understand it at the time!

What most attracted me to his work was the fact the context in which these ideas were developed, was very similar to the contexts in which I have been teaching here in Australia. I also loved that they were all based on research, not just ‘something fun and engaging’ but not necessarily useful to learning languages (as is the case of many activities to which I have been exposed in the past).

The more I read (and attended every workshop I could with him!) in the last 4 years or so, the better I understood the whole picture of his approach to the teaching of languages in schools. It has been fascinating to me that the ideas both Conti and Smith have summarised for us in their books, were in accordance with other ideas related to mind-brain friendly educational approaches to which I have also been exposed in the past years. They also all resonated with aspects of what had worked best in my own teaching and learning experiences such as working on metacognition, the importance of reflection and how useful and enriching it is to obtain feedback form students. It was for once, an approach that did not claim to be ‘magic’ or the ‘only effective way to teach languages’ but rather a solid framework on which to base language learning sequences, while still acknowledging the benefits of other aspects of the teaching-learning experience.  

I was so excited about what this would mean for the improvement of my teaching of languages in schools that I even did some action research to test some of his ideas with my students. The results were encouraging and got me hooked into doing more of it in a more systematic and organised manner. Sadly, I have not yet found an environment where these ideas are embraced and willingly implemented by all my colleagues.  This has essentially meant I have not been able to see the longer-term results of these changes with the students with whom I have worked.

Yet, I can talk about my two most recent experiences briefly here. For instance, last year, as I was starting in a new school, I decided to do as much ‘contification’ of my teaching as possible. It made sense to me to focus on implementation with my two Year 7 classes. I was looking forward to seeing the effects these strategies would have in the long term with these group of students as they move up in the language learning journey. I loved that the differentiation was implicit in the strategies I was using given the quickest learners in my classes were still challenged. These students could always choose to drop the scaffolds, improvise some extension to the sentences with which I provided them, or even combine a couple with a connective to make a more complex sentence (with my own variation of ‘read my mind’ activity for instance). Moreover, the fact all students were working from the start with correct ready-made sentences was definitely helpful to their successful language production. One parent even wrote to me stating her daughter had learned more in a few months than in all the previous years in which she had been doing French in primary school!

Although the lockdown period somewhat interrupted the process, it is also then that I finally took the time to thoroughly read the books The Language Teacher Toolkit and Breaking the Sound Barrier: Teaching Language Learners How to Listen. I went crazy creating and adapting resources to fully suit this approach and was thrilled to realise it was not a hugely time-consuming process. More importantly, creating resources such as a list of 12 to 20 sentences, was incredibly beneficial in making it perfectly clear to me what I intended my students to be able to do with the language each step of the way. More recently, I have benefitted from seeing a great number of examples in the Sentence Builders books and in the Language-gym website for both French and Spanish.

The most fun has been to adapt the strategies that have worked in the classroom to a distance education environment. I have found that many of them can be adjusted, with more or less difficulty, to be delivered through online tools such as Education Perfect or Canvas. For instance, an activity such as Finish the Sentence just required me to record my voice saying some beginning of sentences and then either provide them with some multiple choices or allow them to freely write or record their voice with a possible end to them. More time consuming was to adapt the Find Someone Who to a voice-recorded version of all the cards you would normally give students for them to read. This made it become a just listening activity but, I believe, equally useful. Still, it is obviously yet to be seen how effective these are compared with when they are used in a real classroom environment.

I am very thankful to both Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith for what they have contributed to my reflection and improvement as a Languages teacher. Your blogposts and books in the last few years, including the more recent Memory: What Every Language Teacher Should Know have inspired my professional development and guided me to continue questioning the way I approach my work. Bravo!