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!     

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. 

Chloe Briand on her journey to ‘contification’ (Part 2)

Introduction

Melbourne-based French-Australian Chloe Brian, Head of Languages at the prestigious Methodist Ladies College (Melbourne) writes about how she overhauled her curriculum design based on the MARS’EARS pedagogical framework. This is a sequel to a blog post she published on The Language Gym last May.

The Conti effect on curriculum design

Following on from my previous article for the Language Gym on our department’s “journey into Contification” (22/05/2020), I was delighted to be asked to write the sequel account of our step by step approach and adoption of his work into our curriculum design. With this new post, I aim to go through our process, and share our findings at every stage. I hope that by providing you with those specifics details, you will find some inspiration to infuse your own teaching with MARS’ EARS; from experience, and as I have mentioned before, I can assure you this has been nothing short of a revolution.

Right after we began our work with Dr Conti back in 2018, we decided to examine our existing schemes of work in detail, our textbooks, and our sequences for learning, starting with Year 7. Having engineered a dual language carousel system for Year 7, and consequently, a reduction of time allocation per language, we saw the perfect opportunity to put our syllabus under the microscope and carefully examine our pedagogy. One key element that had resonated with us during our first workshop with Gianfranco was the prevalent lack of recycling opportunities for students. This had been highlighted to us all during a department meeting where we had gone through the exercise of writing on sugar paper our Schemes of Work for every year level from Year 7 onwards for every language: seeing before our eyes the amount of content and grammar we were asking our students to cover each year was not only enlightening, but confronting too. It became apparent that we rarely revisited any item of language, did not do enough consolidation from one unit to the next, and bombarded our students with long lists of vocabulary, mostly in discrete item formats, with no chunking or communicative purpose other than their connection to the topic taught.

This was our starting point. In our language teams, we decided to start with the communicative functions we wanted our Year 7 students to develop a mastery of, bearing in mind the ones which would form a strong foundation for Year 8 communicative functions’ development. As a side note, it was also important for us to have common communicative functions across our 3 languages: French, Chinese and Japanese. Those universals, as Gianfranco calls them, underpin everything our students do in class now. As a result of this sharper focus, we managed to weave in recycling opportunities in every lesson, and throughout entire units of work, giving students the chance to become highly proficient in those functions over time. This was our new mantra: less is more.

Going back to design, the second phase was the creation of Knowledge Organisers, or Sentence Builders, which supported the development of those communicative functions. We put them together for each unit, and they served as the framework for the only language to be practised in class, through a careful and highly curated sequence of tasks which follow the MARS’ EARS sequence. In our beginner classes for Year 7, we spend more time on those early stages in order to develop transferring skills across contexts and enable students to commit their language to long-term memory. The LAM phase is crucial in building students’ confidence, and very soon, we started to see the effect of our new teaching routines through student participation and engagement. With that momentum in place, students (even the most hesitant ones) could then tackle the thorough processing and structured production without any apprehension. This is where we started to see very early on the transformative impact of this way of teaching a second language. Among staff and student favourites are, in no particular order: chorus repetition, finish my sentence, read my mind, dictation and delayed dictation on mini whiteboards, one pen one die, narrow reading, narrow listening, sentence stealers, oral ping-pong, no snakes no ladders, and of course, sentence chaos. The fascinating thing is that as students became familiar with those tasks and thoroughly enjoyed the dynamic nature of class, they started mentioning how this was supporting their language acquisition. We had reached a stage where students were reflecting actively on their own thinking, processing and learning. We share our learning intentions and success criteria at the start of every class, and through their participation in those tasks, they started to connect the dots and comment on how they were developing as second language speakers. Finally, we were seeing all students consistently engaged and excited, because they were feeling successful with their own learning.

The next phase of our curriculum design was rethinking our use of technology so that it would support our pedagogy and significantly enhance learning. We needed it to serve our purpose, not the other way around. We selected a range of tools specifically aligned with each point in our teaching, in direct correlation with the various phases of MARS’ EARS. Incidentally, we also wanted to get better at collecting formative assessment data and ensure we could do that in an easy and manageable manner. The following are some of the tools we find most useful: Education Perfect, Immerse Me, Flipgrid, Kahoot, Quizlet, Anki, and Language Gym. Each of these serves a specific purpose and is aligned with what we teach, when we teach it. For instance, we tend to use Kahoot and Quizlet after the thorough processing phase in order to check for understanding, we also use Flipgrid in the structured production phase and check for spoken precision and sentence structure. Language Gym reinforces our scaffolding our activities at any stage of the learning sequence. As a side note, I do not, by any means, want to imply that these tools are the ones you should necessarily use with your students. This is very much about individual schools, teachers, and contexts, or in other words, what works for you and your students. By using each one with a highly specific purpose in mind, we reinforce each segment of our units of work, and we consolidate the whole process. I should add that this year, remote learning has pushed us further in every aspect of teaching, but particularly with technology. Those extreme circumstances demanded that, like we did with our curriculum, we considered using technology with a heightened sense of purpose, almost with a laser cut approach. There was no more room for the non-essential. If it did not directly contribute to high impact learning and student progress, we did away with it. This reinforced that some of the changes we had made were the right decision, and it clarified the absolute necessity for technology to be an instrument of highly successful learning at all times. Again, and more than ever, less is actually far more. 

Finally, the last phase in the sequence takes place when we reach autonomy and expansion, after most of our time has been spent on building up the previous phases. This last section becomes more integral and prominent as students progress in their learning, and already within the course of Year 7, we can see a progressive shift in the time spent on the early stages of MARS’ EARS, when we can progress faster through to routinization. The scaffolding eases off, and the training wheels come off faster too. This is not only the case because they become more proficient, but also because they trust the process and their ability to learn, and therefore, they take on more risks without fear of failing. They become more creative, and love discovering that about themselves.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, I cannot recommend taking on this journey highly enough, and here are some of the considerations that we are keeping in mind at this time: we have seen a tremendous change in our students’ engagement and participation rates in class. We are regularly receiving very positive feedback from students and parents about what is happening in our classes, which is wonderfully affirming. We will keep a close eye on our Middle School and Senior School language numbers, which will be a strong indicator of how students have connected to their language learning journey. Our staff have worked incredibly hard in order to break free from the mould and carve a new path to learning a language. Our purpose was to empower our students and to give justice to their potential as future language speakers, which required a huge change embraced by all parties. I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such passionate and committed teachers, who have poured every effort into this curriculum overhaul, and I thank them all so much for the amazing work they have undertaken. This is teamwork at its best, and whilst there is no perfect way, this sure does feel like we have contributed to something much bigger than us in this journey of exploration and discovery. When one lets go of the need to be perfect, magic happens.

Three degrees of ‘Contification’ – two guest posts by Vicki Brownlee and Mike Elliott

Another instalment, in our series of posts in which language educators from around the globe share their experiences with aspects of my language teaching approach. This time around I thought of sharing two posts rather than one, because the teachers who authored them, Vicki and Mike, showcase two very different pproaches to incorporating EPI or elements of it in their teaching practice, both very interesting in their own right. Although quite divergent in many ways, they converge on the same core principles which I swear by and constitute the pillars of EPI. Two brilliant posts, as inspirational as and fascinating and the previous ones by Julia, Chloe and Heather. Enjoy.

Post 1: Vicki Brownlee (Head of Languages @ Howden School, East Riding, England)

When I discovered your work I had been using what I described as ‘chunking’ along with LAM (only I didn’t give it a name) for just short of 10 years but I had only used it with one type of pupil – the lowest ability – the pupils, who in year 9 (age 13-14) needed a focus to keep them on track as they would be dropping languages at the end of the year. So they were doing OCR ASSET languages but then we moved on to AQA FCSE! I wrote an article on it for an SEN magazine at the time as ASSET we’re shocked at the number of entries from SEN pupils that we were sending them.

I didn’t use these techniques with any other classes, despite the fact that they were showing results with these lower ability classes. Why? Honestly, I have no idea! I felt the need to teach ‘conventionally’, I thought it was limiting them or I just hadn’t transferred my ideas to other groups? But honestly who knows!

The by-product was that I was starting to see these upils SEN pupils in my GCSE classes and they were ending their GCSE courses with their highest grades in French. I was really lucky that I had some amazing TA’s through this time that ploughed on with the techniques that they had seen me use in KS3 as these pupils moved into mixed ability classes at GCSE – thanks to Karen, Lisa and Jack!

Alongside this I was studying for my masters in psychology and beginning to look more at a psychological level as to how the brain worked and learned, but when I first encountered your LAM and chunking work, it was like someone was affirming what I had been ‘trialling’ with these children (one class in each year group in KS3). So I immediately pushed on and began rolling it out to all classes. It took time for the pupils to buy in and in the last 18 months the department has now ‘bought in’.

We still have textbooks, but in KS3 they are used to guide topics and for a bit of assessment not as a day-to-day resource. I won’t be replacing or renewing them as the bits we don’t like we just don’t use, whether that is units or whole chapters.

In the last two years we have also reduced the curriculum content massively and planned using interleaving, recycling etc so that the whole approach is more joined up. I am still refining some areas and finding what works well with different ability groups and still feel speaking could improve further, however I am very happy with the reading and writing side of it all.

In starting a lesson we always begin with a recap of key structures at 3 levels – red (the easiest), then amber and green. We use a couple of key structures or sentence starters for red; amber looks at recent work and green slightly trickier and from further back. They do this, as they do most of their tasks, on a mini whiteboard, making this all a win in terms of marking!

During the modelling phase we make use of sentence builders with translation activities with the teacher reading sentences in the L2 and the pupils translating into L1 and moving on using this like a dictation. This is the perfect way to highlight elements of grammar that you want pupils to notice.  In the next phase, pupils love the mind reader game, which we play in both the spoken and written form – we play as a whole class and in small groups!  The games are so useful as pupils are hearing and seeing the target language so much. Delayed Dictation has proved exceptionally useful at highlighting and teaching a technique, which is invaluable when listening to longer texts.  Delayed translation is a further and equally useful version, which again practises an essential skill needed in listening.

The Sentence Stealer Game is extremely popular.  Pupils still love games such as 3:1 for whole class translation into L1. I am gradually building a bank of narrow reading activities that I personally find more time consuming to make, but a focused and excellent resource.

As we begin to move into the structured production phase, we begin to remove some of the sentence builder support and again use activities such as delayed dictation and translation.  We also use a range of activities such as one pen, one dice (L1 to L2) and translation based tasks.  Tangled translations are fabulous and can focus on specific structures with careful planning. Pupils can choose to translate into or from the target language to produce their response and the more able will do both! Pyramid Translations take a bit more organising and setting up to ensure that the ‘jobs’ are correctly allocated but the outcome is highly engaged pupils producing some fabulous L2 work.

We also do a weekly low stakes test of core structures that we have identified for each year group. The set of phrases starts at 20 for year 7 going up to 80 for year 11. They mark it themselves and we look for perfection in terms of spelling and accents etc. The aim each week is to equal or preferably improve on a previous score. The whole process takes an absolute maximum of 10 minutes but this has been invaluable and was implemented long before the Contifying of lessons and followed my reading about the usefulness of low stakes testing!

At the end of the lesson I make use of exit tickets (written or verbally) and recap 5 slips – where pupils note five things from that lesson, five from the previous lesson and five from earlier in the topic or a previous topic. This is helping them to see the links in their learning and how they are building a level of complexity in what they are able to do. Pupils love the game ‘boxes’ and we often play for 5 minutes at the end of a lesson, using it as an opportunity to revise receptive and productive chunks rather than just vocabulary.

With a series of templates these activities are very quick to produce with the chosen vocabulary. I use the same resources and activities in sequences of lessons expecting the level of independence to increase or just by adding an extra column to the sentence builder to add a layer of additional complexity or additional pronouns etc. Having everything the same means I rarely have to ‘waste’ time explaining how to do a specific task and we can just do the task. Pupils are writing more accurately and are gradually gaining more independence and autonomy. They are feeling as if they are understanding more too (comprehensible input) and this, along with other measures, I feel is instrumental in our increased uptake for GCSE and the steadily improving outcomes!  It is harder to implement in KS4 with the sheer volume of vocabulary to be covered but we will plough on and keep doing our best to Contify as much as possible.

I am loving teaching again and reading and educational research to justify what I am doing – thank you! My only issue is mini whiteboard pens – I can’t keep up with the quantity we use and the pupils are practising so much!

Vicki has been teaching for just over twenty years and has worked as a GCSE moderator and examiner too. She has always had a keen interest in SEN teaching and recently undertook an online part-time Masters Degree in Psychology with University of Derby. Vicki is currently a Head of Department in a small rural 11-16 school in northern England, where there is currently a huge growth in languages. The school currently teaches Spanish and French (despite her degree being in German) and they have just started the process to introduce Chinese with the help of the Confucius Institute. Vicki has found learning Chinese alongside the pupils to be an enlightening experience and has been introducing Conti methods and activities to the teachers from the Confucius Institute!

Post 2: Mike Elliott (Head of Languages @ Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England)

KS3 French Curriculum Redesign: A Case Study

At the end of each unit in my Year 7 French class, I ask students to complete a Google Form, offering them the chance to comment on their perceived progress, to identify their personal targets, and to see whether they have met the learning objectives for the topic. This particular link contains responses to the question “What have you particularly enjoyed? Have you made progress?”. A useful starting point, perhaps, in determining whether the KS3 Curriculum that I started to redesign is heading in the right direction.

Some of the comments are very flattering (!), but the ones that I really like are these:

“In French, this term I have enjoyed the active games where we get out of our chairs. I have also enjoyed the activities on the board. Overall French has been great and my favourite lesson this term.”

“I have enjoyed playing the interactive games such as ‘voleurs’, where you steal other people’s cards by guessing the phrase they’ve picked.”

“I have enjoyed that we do lots of talking and not just taking down notes.”

“I have enjoyed everything we have covered and I feel as if I have improved massively in pronunciation of French words I am or am not familiar with.”

“I liked learning about the town in French over again and learning about sports.”

Now, it could be that I have a very able cohort (I have), but I have been pleased that the things that we set out to do have largely been achieved. There is reference above to: more speaking; games where students get out of their seats and interact with others; clear improvement in pronunciation; learning a new topic whilst recycling elements from the previous topic. All of these things have led to a purposeful classroom dynamic, following a bespoke Scheme of Work, and referring to agreed department principles. I don’t think it is finished, but I do think we have made a promising start, and, personally, I am excited and motivated to keep revising and developing. What follows is an account of the steps I have taken to redesign the KS3 French Curriculum at the school where I work. It is not intended to be a “this is how you do it” piece, but rather “this is how I did it” and let’s start the discussion… !

Planning

Redesigning the KS3 curriculum was an obvious thing to do given the changes to the GCSE and A-level specification. On the one hand it could be argued that this was obvious anyway, given the increased importance of students being able to express their ideas spontaneously and freely, and no longer having the luxury of controlled assessment tasks, where students could focus on just a small topic area which could be revised, rehearsed – perhaps copied from an older sibling – and then reproduced in test conditions, earning up to 15% of the final GCSE grade. On the other hand, why not objectively reflect on the status quo, and consider making improvements.

It was clear to me as well that there were a number of inspirational teachers around the country who were coming up with new ideas, and new approaches, in order to improve students’ best chance of success, particularly for Speaking and Writing. I attended the Inside Government Conference for Modern Foreign Languages conference in October 2018 and was impressed by Ian Bauckham, who shared some of the key findings from the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review, which I subsequently downloaded and read closely. I was already aware of Gianfranco‘s work, and had already read a number of other articles on the Language Gym looking at various strategies, including implicit vs explicit routines, the importance of comprehensible input, the importance of self-efficacy (one of many words / concepts that I needed to look up!), and all these things were pointing me to the same conclusion: that less is more and, in a lot of cases, textbooks are not the only answer. Some colleagues and I were concerned when looking at the GCSE Textbook – particularly for the Higher Tier – where there were double pages that were almost entirely inaccessible. I accept there is a strong argument to review the current mundane GCSE topics to improve motivation, but I think a bigger factor for motivation is the reward associated with being able to access and understand material. So, if it comes down to a choice between mastering concepts and ensuring that all the mundane topics are covered, it seems clear to me that mastery should be prioritised, even if this means you don’t cover everything. 

Anyway, I became increasingly convinced that going more slowly and focusing on developing confidence, enjoyment and self-efficacy was going to lead to greater motivation, greater enthusiasm and, perhaps, greater uptake throughout the Key Stages. There were also other things that I picked up from various Language Shows over the years: Rachel Hawkes commented in one of her sessions that, despite the fact that she has written or contributed to a number of textbooks, the perfect textbook doesn’t exist in languages, because every chapter would repeat the previous chapter as well as adding new content from the current chapter, so an ideal textbook in languages would be almost exponential in terms of chapter length. In another session, some were talking about making KS3 “grammar and structure heavy”, but light relatively in terms of vocabulary, because once the structures were well understood, it makes it far easier to manipulate those structures in KS4 just by switching the key vocabulary. I was increasingly interested by the idea of knowledge organisers too, which seemed to be paying dividends at the Michaela School and elsewhere, as well as increased focus perhaps on the importance of phonics, and the introduction of good pronunciation earlier on. I was also interested by an AQA GCSE Feedback comment, where they had expressed surprise that so much ‘KS3 vocabulary’ had been misunderstood in one set of exams. This goes to show the importance of recycling and of revisiting vocabulary throughout. 

Starting to build

In the gained time after the exam classes left last year I started seriously thinking about how to restructure the KS3 curriculum. I was already very convinced by a lot of what I had read on the Language Gym blog in particular, and I put some of these ideas to the Head of German and the Head of Spanish. We took a whole day off timetable, to agree our key principles, ready for an official launch to the rest of the department, making sure that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet, and that we were all equally invested in making this a success. The key principles that we agreed were as follows:

  1. Focus on mastery not content: one unit every half term doesn’t make sense for any number of reasons, so why put yourself under unnecessary pressure to cover lots of content quickly and superficially?
  2. High(er) levels of comprehensible input: making students feel more connected, more involved, more engaged and give them a greater sense of reward in what they’re doing.
  3. Lots of recycling of grammar and vocabulary: think very carefully about opportunities to revisit key vocabulary, and to recycle what has been learnt in different contexts.
  4. Communicative functions (cf. Conti): an eminently sensible starting point. What are students going to want / need to do? These become the learning objectives for a unit of work too.
  5. Schemes of Work to contain key vocab & structures, assessments driven by key vocab & structures (“fair” assessments)

In addition to this was an acceptance that Listening and Speaking is probably neglected at times, so we agreed to put more focus on these skills. This resonated with me as my eldest son was 2 at the time, and it was fascinating to watch his speech develop, solely based on what he heard, and this hammered home the point that we are hardwired to learn languages through listening, so why not make this a bigger part of the classroom experience. “Sentence stealers”, “Quiz-Quiz-Trade”, “Mind Reader”, e.g. have been great, and have helped to maintain that sense of progression, enjoyment, and enthusiasm throughout the year.

We also agreed to make key structures and key vocabulary very clear and very explicit in the Schemes of Work, and to ensure that assessments were fair, and encourage and reward ‘thorough processing’, demonstrating real understanding of a text (as opposed to demonstrating good multiple-choice guesswork, or an ability to deal with the demoralising puzzles, riddles and red herrings typically found in Listening or Reading questions).

Practical steps

So, practically, what did I do? I looked at a number of different Year 7 French SoWs, some taken from exam websites, some from other schools, which I then compared with what we normally do. I decided early on that this curriculum redesign would need to be done over a few years at least, so I wanted to have a rolling plan. I decided that four topics felt like a more reasonable number to complete in one year, and I decided not to start with the classic “My name is… / I am 11 years old /  I live in …” topic, based on our school context. When students from a nearby independent primary school arrive in Year 7 having completed Tricolore 2, and they are in the same class as students who have never learnt French, it is easy for both ends of the ability spectrum to be put off, either because it seems like easy, tedious revision or because you feel that everyone in the class is better than you. It creates an unwelcome dynamic.

So I thought perhaps something like “Town” might be a leveller. There may be enough new stuff in that topic for everyone to feel as though they are getting something out of it. Then, I thought we could move on to Sport, and then Talking about Oneself and then Family. I was building up to a point whereby in the third unit, in addition to the classic, hello, my name is, etc, they were able to talk about hobbies too, why they do them, which ones they do when it’s hot, what there is in their town to enable them to do their hobby, etc. and therefore drawing in things that had been previously learnt. For instance, take the sentence “In my town there is an ice rink”. We have a preposition, a possessive adjective, the phrase “there is” which will be used in probably every topic (weather, in my family, …). I was also thinking about introducing the ‘oi’ sound in French (patinoire). All of these things will be revisited frequently, and intentionally. For a hastily-prepared Christmas lesson, it was relatively simple also to go from “the station is next to the church” to “the Christmas tree is next to the television”, and from “in my town there is an ice rink” to “in my stocking there is a present”. 

Getting a little ahead of myself here. Before thinking about key structures and vocabulary, I first thought of the communicative functions (taken from Gianfranco’s magic twelve). Once I had decided on the main Units, I picked the relevant macro functions for Year 7, and then started thinking about the micro-functions. This is where the post-its came in handy. Once I had macro and micro functions in place, I started to think about the key vocab and structures, etc. I have devised sentence builders, although I have tended to opt for relatively short phrases, mainly to facilitate mini-whiteboard work. I may consider extending these in the future. You can see some of the work in progress below:

review

Once I had shuffled around the Post-Its, I started to create a document like this, which – once formatted – I am happy to share. It breaks Units down into the following: macro communicative function; micro communicative function; key vocabulary and structures. From then, each Unit is broken down into suggested lessons.

I have not had any real need to use a textbook this year, other than judiciously-chosen pages which match the topic well (and then, only for cover work or listening homework). When required, I have created most of the Listening tracks myself, recorded on a small voice recorder with USB, and then embedded into Google Slides), although there is a lot of listening happening through the various sentence builder / whiteboard activities. I have created two booklets to cover the first two units (the next two are on my to-do list) and I have included a number of activities, some of which can be completed in class, some as homework/cover, and some that include thorough-processing tasks, modelled on some of Gianfranco’s ideas. Example booklet below:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1he28jcnztokxj3gJ32h-Biz1ikzR8A2g/view?usp=sharing 

What next?

Repeat for Year 8. I need to take on board the successes of this year, and at the same time implement feedback from colleagues and students. I remain utterly convinced that these changes have been massively beneficial, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my lessons with Year 7 this year. Sure, it’s been a lot of work, but most Year 7 resources are ready to go now, bar the odd tweak here and there. If we can continue to harness students’ enthusiasm, interest and motivation that can only be a good thing. I am aware of recent posts questioning the benefits of comprehensible input over engaging culturally-rich texts and, as with most things, a hybrid approach, blending a number of these key ideas is probably best. I am sure, however, that the short term pain will be worth it when enjoying the long term gain. Right, where are those post-its?

Mike Elliott is the Team Leader for Languages, and Subject Leader for French, at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School.

“Contification in practice” – Guest post by Heather Morgan

This is the third post in our series of articles written by experienced language educators who have decided to adopt my approach or aspects of it. This post is by Heather Morgan, a very experienced teacher, with many years as Head of Languages in the bag, many of which in a great Worcester school, The Chantry School, in which the MFL team have wholeheartedly embraced E.P.I.

“Contification in practice” by Heather Morgan 

I have been teaching languages for 15 years in a small rural comprehensive in Worcestershire. I have worked with some fantastic colleagues there, both in the MFL department and the wider school community.

About two to three years ago I started following posts about MFL teaching on Facebook, started reading blogs and I also purchased the book

“The Language Teacher Toolkit” by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti

I was absolutely fascinated by the research which Gianfranco had done regarding the acquisition of language. Lots of things which I had noticed in my own language learning and also in my experience of teaching languages, suddenly made sense!

As a Head of Department for many years, it had always dismayed me that when I came to analyse the GCSE results, Listening was the skill where pupils seemed to fare the worse (especially in French).

So with this is mind I decided to see if we could incorporate some of Gianfranco’s ideas into our teaching in KS3 in the hope that it will bolster the confidence and therefore the results of our KS4 pupils (and also into KS5, although we do not have a Sixth Form at our school).

Around this time, we had just employed a new colleague – a compatriot of Gianfranco (Italian native speaker – Ambrogio De Santis) and he also was keen to embrace the ideas of Gianfranco; so, we set about “Contify-ing” some of our work. As with all things in teaching, we could not do everything at once so we each focused on a particular group – for me this was Year 8 French.

At this time, we were also very fortunate to be given one hour per fortnight’s timetable dedicated to our own CPD. This meant that I could read around the research (but to be honest I am still getting my head around some of the specialised vocabulary) and also spend some of my time on specific Conti planning. I also invested some of our CPD budget making sure that each of the MFL teachers had the opportunity of attending a CPD session with Gianfranco.

So, these are some of the things we have learnt, and are learning, along the way:

  • Establishing and embedding a key number of universals within the KS3 SOW enables recycling and interleaving e.g.
UNIVERSAL 1 ·         j’ai / je n’ai pas de/ il y a / il n’y a pas de

 

This universal is at the very start of Year 7 (with school bag items, family members, pets etc.) but it is recycled many times through Year 8 and Year 9 as well.

  • Using sentence builders at the start of each block of work introduces patterns (or reinforces patterns) and enables progress.
  • Using sentence builders means that there is lots of scaffolding for weaker learners, but you can also stretch the more able learners.
  • Using a variety of activities which follow the MARS/EARS structure (e.g. sentence stealers / mind readers / delayed dictation / faulty echo / oral ping-pong/ shading in narrow reading / narrow translation) motivates the pupils.

Initially it seems like it is a lot of work to prepare a series of lessons based on Gianfranco’s principles – certainly the first time that both Ambrogio and I prepared one, it took hours. However, once you have the formats for the sentence builders and activities, it takes very little time. Also, we have found that the same 9-12 sentences are used in lots of the activities (e.g. Strip Bingo / Blind OXO). This fits in with the maxim that there should be 95% comprehensible input allowing pupils to thoroughly process the language being taught.

When we had a PGCE student with us last term, she had to produce a resource for one of her assignments.  We advised her to produce a MARS/EARS PowerPoint with at least 2 activities for each stage. This means that she has a blueprint which she can use for any block of work. When I caught up with her again at a Gianfranco Conti CPD session organised at our school, she told me that she had scored very highly in this assignment!

The pupil voice which we have conducted over the last 18 months is very encouraging: pupils find the sentence builders useful and really enjoy a lot of the activities which take them on their journey. Several pupils said that the constant modelling of the language made it stick in their heads and some of them said they could “see” the sentence builders in their head. This means that they feel more confident and willing to have a go at speaking!

The progress which we have made since our initial foray into the world of Conti teaching, is that we think much more carefully about the sequence of the learning and activities. If I’m honest, at the start it was just a series of activities merged together! Now we are much more aware of where each activity fits in the MARS/EARS sequence.

This year we have tried to make our summative assessments be more spontaneous rather than the rote learning of long passages which a lot of our pupils used to rely on. This has certainly worked for our higher ability pupils and by paring it right down for our weaker pupils, they have also been able to achieve a level of spontaneity.

We have tried to take on board the “less is more” mantra but we also acknowledge that there is somewhat of a dichotomy with this and the very content heavy status of the current GCSE. Our aim is to improve fluency and spontaneity in our three year Key Stage 3 and then consolidate in Key Stage 4.

The fluency and spontaneity of some of our pupils in Year 8 and 9 is very encouraging and it is such a shame that this could now be hindered by the lockdown caused by the Corona virus. However, in our on-line lessons we are trying to take on board some of Gianfranco’s ideas of using reading as modelling to try to offset this.

Heather Morgan (former Head of Languages at The Chantry School, Worcestershire).  Having loved learning languages in my small secondary school in Wales, I was determined to further my studies in languages at University. I chose a course which allowed me to study three languages simultaneously and gained a BA (Hons) in Modern Languages from Leicester University in 1986.

Over the years, I have used my knowledge of languages whilst working for an international warehousing and distribution company, for the management services section of local government, and for the sales and administration department for an international china and porcelain company. I retrained as a MFL teacher 15 years ago and I am able to teach French, German and Italian. I have recently decided to work part-time to help my husband with his business. We have also brought up three children – all now flown the nest!

A journey into Contification – Guest-post by Chloe Briand

As language teachers, we are all too familiar with the seemingly Sisyphean task we have chosen as a career: to instil a love for the language we teach in our students whilst developing their linguistic competence towards autonomy, to facilitate their understanding of why they are learning a language and what opportunities lie ahead if they seize that challenge, and finally, to provide them with enough success in their learning to balance out the frustration from what can feel like a never ending process of failed attempts, which is the only way to proficiency. It is a highly complex environment to navigate, for both teachers and learners, even more so when situated in highly Anglo-centric backgrounds, and when faced with divergent research findings on various Second Language acquisition methodologies on what proves to be most effective in the classroom.

Traditionally, we have been guilty of considering innate talent, or aptitude, to be the main factor in successful L2 acquisition. This misconception would allow us to predict students’ success, or failure, accordingly. This meant that our methods in class were mostly tailored to suit a finite number of students, who demonstrated these “aptitude” attributes (such as the ability to infer meaning, grammatical flair, a sensitive ear to phonemes, memory capacity, etc.) along with the motivation and determination to succeed. The way I trained as a French and Spanish teacher back in Swansea, Wales, back in the early 2000s, with the exclusive use of Target Language in the classroom and the clear veto of any use of English, most certainly confirmed that predicate. The cognitive factors at hand here were not addressed systematically in our methods; upon reflexion, I can clearly see that my training was designed to cater to a small portion of students who would be able to, not only process highly dense input through their overly able decoding and sound discriminating faculties, but also to synthesize complex grammatical concepts through abstract meaning and apply their newly acquired knowledge into their production of language. This was of course doomed to fail, and I very soon observed that such an approach lost me most of my students, who were discouraged, feeling highly anxious, and at times, completely overwhelmed with what I asked of them, especially when comparing themselves to the 2 or 3 students in the class who could keep up.

I believe this approach is what has built our reputation over the years as an impossible subject to learn, because in truth, it really was. How many times have we heard parents at teacher interviews confess they were “no good at languages” when they were at school, and that they wished they had continued with it rather than give up? To this day, children are still largely experiencing that feeling of hopelessness and that it is just “too hard”. And I agree. What we have been doing as language teachers is teach ourselves, or the impossible minority of students who possess the motivation and those abilities, and who will learn the language no matter what is thrown at them in class. I was one of those students at school. No matter what the method was, who the teacher was, I was passionate about language and I was determined to learn, so I experienced success regardless. Unfortunately, this left the vast majority of our students on the side of the road.

Another crucial element that contributed to this phenomenon throughout the last decades is the multiplicity of methodologies developed over the years, through developing academic research on second language and its acquisition. A constant evolution from the direct method, the audiolingual method, the communicative approach, the Task-Based Learning, the Content and Language Integrated Learning, a focus on interaction and transaction, an explicit teaching of grammar, a target language only approach: the abundance of suggestions was both extremely stimulating and confusing. There is often a feeling that we must reinvent the wheel with every new method that comes out, which led many practitioners to feel like they had no clear guidance on, or understanding of, how to best teach their students.

More and more, language teachers started to incorporate multiple approaches into their classrooms, based on what they observed to be effective. We started to use English purposefully to reinforce understanding of concepts and instructions with students, scaffolding into different layers what we exposed them to, in order to cater to every range of ability. We adopted the communicative approach combined with task-based learning assessment in order to contextualise their learning. We were striving to find the right balance between communication and explicit grammar teaching to facilitate analysis of language. A lot of thinking about learning and curriculum design was taking place, but there was no consistent approach across the board.

At my current school, back in 2016, we found ourselves at a crossroads. Multiple languages were on offer since Year 7, but we struggled with low numbers and retention in middle and senior school for some of them, and with many disengaged students throughout the years, despite highly experienced and passionate teachers. Our number one priority was to address students’ engagement and to stabilize numbers into sustainability. To that end, we introduced a carousel of languages in Year 7, where students study 2 languages throughout the year before selecting one to pursue in Year 8 (this would allow them to experience them first-hand, and not just randomly select a language without really knowing). We also introduced a national qualification in Year 9 and 10, the Certificate II VET in Applied Language, which focuses on both social and workplace competencies (for clarification, VET in Australia stands for Vocational Educational Training, which provides nationally accredited qualifications designed in partnership with industries and the government in an effort to train people with workplace skills and technical knowledge to help them advance their career).  These measures meant less time to teach in Year 7, as we were now delivering 2 languages, and a high volume of prescriptive assessment tasks in Year 9 and 10. The challenge was enormous, but we had restored a sense of purpose to what we were doing, and soon, all teachers found themselves scrutinizing their curriculum and experimenting with a range of tools and methods, as we were committed to empowering all students to become the best language learners they could be. This is when Dr Conti came in.

Back in 2017, Dr Conti came to deliver his first workshop, and within the space of 3 hours, managed to open our eyes to his world of comprehensible input, working memory and thorough processing. In that time, he validated what we intuitively knew already: our syllabi were too full, and they were not effective. We did not leave room for recycling and we were throwing vocab list upon vocab list at our students, hoping that some would “stick”. The discussions that ensued from this moment not only radically changed our approaches, but they also made us better practitioners, in that we started to critically observe each element of our curriculum in order to decide whether it was truly necessary to build students’ competencies. We kept on using multiple teaching tools, but the pedagogy underpinning them became clearer. In brief, we started making room and we started embedding systematic recycling, knowledge organisers, extensive processing of language in all 4 skills, and communicative functions of language. It was a revolution.

But revolutions do take time, and a lot of arduous and consistent work across teams, in order to reach their objective. With a renewed sense of purpose underpinning our programs (with the carousel in Year 7 and the VET Certificate II in Year 9 and 10), change was possible. By the time Dr Conti came back to our school for his second workshop the following year, we were all eager to ask more specific questions about his MARS’EARS sequence, the transition from oral to written fluency, and how to best maximise class time for successful learning. We had started to see the shift in students’ engagement and participation in classes, at every step of the range of abilities. They were active, focused and very enthusiastic about the skills they were developing. The anxiety levels had dropped significantly as we recycled language thoroughly, as modelling through listening became our focus when introducing new content, and as thorough processing finally allowed students to internalise what we covered in class. Our students’ survey results were unanimous: they felt positive about learning a language, empowered to do so, and their self-esteem was soaring as a result. What more could we ask for?

Upon looking back at these past few years, I am in awe of my amazing colleagues for undertaking such a challenge and for seizing every opportunity to make their student’s experience better. This has been quite the journey, from overhauling our methodologies across all languages to training for VET delivery, and I could not have worked with more committed and passionate practitioners. I am also deeply grateful for Dr Conti’s support and influence in guiding our practice. His wealth of experience and practical approaches enabled us to trial and experiment his method very quickly, but more importantly, he facilitated this drastic change to our teaching through saying out loud what everybody thought quietly: less is more, and with the right approach, far more effective. In future, we will continue to use an evidence-based evaluation of our programs, to develop teachers’ skills through training, and to collect feedback from all our stakeholders, but so far, results are staggering.

If we are to truly impact our students’ lives through our teaching, we must empower them all to believe in their own potential, and we must enable them to experience systematic success in our lessons. Only then will they open up to the possibility of making a second language part of who they are as they continue to grow as young adults. After all, Sisyphus did prove to the Gods that by embracing life’s challenges as our own, we give them their true value and significance.

Chloe Briand is the Head of Languages at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne, Australia, where she leads a team of 20 staff across 4 languages (French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese). With over 17 years of teaching practice across 4 countries and her experience of a wide range of school environments, academic excellence and innovation drive her curriculum design, along with pioneering approaches to teaching languages, through authentic contexts and experiential learning.

The art and science of creating sentence builders – key factors to consider in creating your sentence builders

Introduction: no, I have not invented sentence builders

I have not invented sentence builders. Of course not. They have existed for decades. But I did coin that term and the way I design and use them differs substantively from what I have seen done in the past. I remember coming across hundreds of them when I first started teaching, but never finding exactly what I wanted.

I wanted a tool which was accessible to all of my students; easy for the children to use; which contained the right amount of words and structures my students could cope with.

I also wanted a tool that I could use for the approach that I was developing, Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), which has now become a teaching technology used by classroom practitioners from all over the world, but in those days was still in the making.

The sentence builders made by some prominent authors on TES and elsewhere fell short in this regard. They were too crowded, contained no English translation (taboo for many authors) or other means to establish meaning. The words in them were arranged randomly which made access to them and their meaning more arduous for the students.

Like many vocabulary and grammar organizers that I see floating on the internet these days, those sentence builders were not designed for introducing vocabulary orally and went against or ignored the most fundamental principles of cognitive pyschology and what we know about enhancing attention and learning.

In this post, the first in a series of posts on how to create and use sentence builders, I will deal – very concisely – with some key issues to consider when designing a sentence builder (henceforth SB).

Key factors to consider when creating your SB

(1) surrender value of the construction and vocabulary selected (e.g. Is it a high-frequency construction?) – I have already discussed in previous posts on this blog how, in E.P.I., in designing a unit of work, one gets from the target communicative functions to the key constructions one is planning to teach (here). What I would like to reiterate here, though, is the importance of choosing sentence constructions which are learnable and useful for real life communication. Not selected randomly because we like them or are found in the book in use.

(2) comprehensible input (Is the content of the SB comprehensible without any need to use any other resource?) This is key. Most sentence builders I see do not contain the L1 translation or images which  make the learners’ access to the meaning of the SB content possible. Comprehensible input is key to learning and the L1 translation provides very useful scaffolding. You will remove it gradually once the students become familiar with the content. I still remember a lady (on a Facebook group) criticizing my sentence builders, saying that they looked great but shouldn’t have the L1 translation. The very next day I asked my students, both in my more able and less able groups, through an anonymous questionnaire, if they preferred my SBs with or without the translation. The answer was unanimous: keep the translation at the beginning, remove it later. Every single student found the translation useful, especially ‘dodgy translation’ (word-for-word L1 translation, even when grammatically wrong in the L1 – see below). The L1 translation has another important benefit: it shows the differences and similarities between the two languages. We know this helps L2 acquisition.

(3) input enhancement techniques (Have I made what I want the students to notice more distinctive?). For instance, in the sentence builder below, aimed at absolute beginners, I wanted to highlight negatives, the relative pronoun ‘que’ and how some adjectives don’t change from ‘o’ to ‘a’ in the feminine. When you use the sentence builder to model the content, you will of course use your voice to emphasize the very same items and others.

sentence builder animals

(4) cognitive load and ease of visual access – (Is it easy on the eye? Is it too crowded? Are the words arranged according to an easily identifiable and logical system? Is this the clearest font? etc.). Many sentence builders, knowledge organisers and writing frames I see on the Web, do not consider these very important issues. I won’t discuss those issues here, but I will soon upload a video on my YouTube Channel to discuss Cognitive Load with reference to SBs. One of the obvious issues relates to working memory capacity and digit span, which, as I have mentioned many times over in previous posts, is very limited, amounting to 3 to 4 lexical chunks or words on average.

(5) phonological and orthographic similarity of the lexical items (are there items in here that could cause cross-association because they sound or look too similar?) When words are too similar in sound or spelling, they can cause interference and consequently hinder learning. Hence, you will avoid, especially with beginners or weaker students, items or chunks that are too similar along those dimensions. We know from science that phonological similarity causes more problems to the human brain, and since our brain ‘voices’ everything we read (even when we read silently) even words which may not look similar but do sound very similar to the learner (as in ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’, ‘lust’ and ‘last’ to an Italian ear) can cause massive problems. Phonological and orthographic similiarities are the main reason why students find verb conjugations so hard to learn! So, do avoid embedding entire unfamiliar verb conjugations in your sentence builders. Start with one or two persons first, then, once the students have become highly familiar with the construction and vocabulary, insert the remaining persons.

(6) opportunities for recycling and interleaving old/new items (have I seized any opportunity to recyle and interleave core items?). The columns in an SB can be used to recycle and interleave previously learnt items, so why not exploit this great advantage they give you over many other vocabulary-teaching tools? What I usually do, is slot in those columns my set of universals or desirables.

(7) opportunities for seed-planting of upcoming material – by the same token, just as you can recycle old material, you could put in the sentence builder chunks and grammar that you will expand on in a lesson or unit that you are planning to teach in the not too far future. I call this technique seed-planting. A very useful technique in that it primes the students for future learning thereby facilitating the acquisition of the to-be-taught items.

(8) target collocations /colligations – this will inform your segmentation of the content (What do I put in each column to underscore the pattern gluing the words together or high frequency collocations?) How you combine or isolate items in each column can help facilitate learning by drawing attention to them or to the fact that they are usually used in combination with specific items. For instance, in the sentence builder above, I could have chosen to have ‘que’ in a column of its own. However, dealing with absolute beginners, I am simply putting it together with ‘se llama’ in the chunk because I want to use ‘que se llama’ as a whole unanalysed building block. At a later date, when I will be explicitly modeling the use of relatives in Spanish, I will ‘isolate’ it so that it will be (a) more salient and (b) it will be easy to contrast it with other relative pronouns and show how it can be used in combination with prepositions. By writing it in ‘red’, though, I am making it more distinctive to the student and hopefully someone will ask me why I used a different colour for that word.

(9) chunking that facilitates noticing of phonological and phonotactic patterns (e.g. French: which chunks include liaison or assimilation phenomena which could be useful for the student to notice/learn?) An example of this is ‘liaison’ in French. If there is a word that liaises with another in your sentence builder and you want them to learn the liaison easily and effectively, chunking the two items together will prevent the possibility that they might ‘miss’ the liaison. By learning them as a chunk they are learning them as an item; so there will be more chances that ‘je suis allemand’ will be learnt as ‘jesuizalman’ rather than ‘je’ / ‘sui’ / ‘alman’. The same applies to the issue of assimilation. If the sentence builder above featured the indefinite article ‘un‘ in isolation in ‘Tengo un pajaro’ , the chances of them learning it as ‘tengo’ ‘un‘ ‘pajaro’ would be higher than them learning it correctly as ‘tengo umpajaro’ which is the correct pronunciation (the ‘n’ being pronounced as ‘m’ in connected speech due to the assimilation phenomenon).

(10) visuals that may support the learning of the target vocabulary (e.g. Can I replace the English translation with pictures instead? Do I have a set of flashcards or other visual aids to support the teaching of the SB’s content?)  Dual coding, whereby images and words are used in combination, helps massively in bringing about stronger retention. Whilst having sound (your voice) and written text helps, using images in combination with the SB is even more powerful. I make sure I use all three media when possible. Before or after introducing the construction with the sentence builder, do use visuals. In certain cases, with very basic sentence builders introducing places, colours, animals, food, etc. you will be able to add in images instead of the L1 translation.

Conclusion

Do bear in mind that an SB is only a tool that is as good as what you are going to do with it. I still remember when I first talked to the great Steve Smith about SBs a couple of years ago. He asked me: how would you use them? As a writing frame, right? He had never used an SB before as a means to present vocabulary orally because, for donkey years, SBs have been used as writing frames or grammar-teaching tools.

So, first off, you need to decide what you are going to use the SB for: for Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), i.e. the set of instructional sequences and techniques I talk about in my book “Breaking the sound barrier” or as a writing frame? That decision is crucial: as it affects massively how you are going to design the sentence builder. Why?Because my ‘scripted listening techniques’ will require more focus and will pose greater cognitive load than copying bits from a sentence frame in order to write a sentence or paragraph in your own sweet time.

Reading and writing exist in space, which means that you can go back to the text at will. But Listening exists in time, aural input lingering in sensory memory for barely two seconds; hence, when you use sentence builders to present language through listening you must be aware of anything that may add an extra cognitive challenge. Hence the importance of a clear SB design with spaces in between words, alphabetical order, etc; of input enhancement techniques; of highly patterned comprehensible input; of ‘dodgy translation’ (i.e. word for word L1 translation which may flout L1 grammar rules) which makes it clear what each word means (e.g. translating ‘J’ai dix ans’ ‘I have ten years’ as opposed to ‘I am ten years old’).

In conclusion, designing effective SBs should be, just like teaching, both a science and an art. Something you design with a clear pedagogic framework and instructional technique in mind.

No, I haven’t invented sentence builders, but I have perfected their usage as teaching tools after twenty years of using them in the classroom with primary to university students; asking for lots of feedback from my ‘classes’ on how to improve them to facilitate their learning. Bouncing ideas off my colleagues (e.g. Dylan Vinales, with whom I am currently writing a Spanish book of activities centred around sentence builders and follow-up activities: “Spanish sentence builders – a lexicogrammar approach).

After much experimentation with both very weak and very able students, I have become aware of the benefits and drawbacks of using this tool and how it can be made more effective using techniques which involve focus on sounds, vocabulary, lexis, syntax and even discourse. Many of which I share in my workshops around the world, have shared in my second book and will soon share on this blog. Watch this space.

A final word. An OFSTED inspector has recently said to me that SBs make language learning too easy. They shouldn’t be used. The students should not be provided with ready-made worked examples of how sentences are built; they shoud work that out by themselves. The answer to this person, who boasted that having taught for 15 years he was an expert, is that, according to research, the main reason for which students drop modern languages in Year 9 in the UK is that they find languages difficult and too much work.

This doesn’t mean we must dumb down our learning expectations, but that we must teach in ways that suit the adolescent learner’s cognitive capacity and style; that are engaging; that rely more on the aural route than on the written one; and that are based on what we know about second language acquisition.

We know the brain chunks every single language item we learn. That’s how we acquire language – any language. Traditionally, this has been done by teaching words and then the glue (i.e. the grammar) that chunks them together in sentences. This painstaking process often carried out through less-than-engaging techniques has failed students and teachers alike for many decades. Hence, the continuous decline of languages in schools in England. Adding in phonics, high-frequency word lists and banning ludic activities, as some prominents UK MFL ‘gurus’ propose, won’t make this approach any more palatable or easier for youngsters.

The Sentence builders, if designed and used effectively, make this all-important chunking process much easier, whilst the LAM activities we propose, not only make the explicit teaching of phonics nearly redundant, but make language learning much more fun and durable. And because they rely mainly on the aural medium (in synergy with visual coding) to introduce the new constructions and vocabulary, sentence builders and L.A.M. make learning much easier.

If you want to find out a bit more about how to use sentence builders and Listening As Modelling (aka LAM) do get hold of my book, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen”, co-authored with Steve Smith.