Fighting the language decline – Answers in your classroom

Shortly after results day the Guardian ran a piece here reporting a continued decline in students taking GCSE languages.  They also ran an analytical piece (crowd sourced from Twitter) investigating reasons for the decline.  Both were interesting reads although I think Jennifer Beattle’s and Sara Davidson’s points were the most pertinent from the point of view of a teacher.  I have endeavoured to summarise the thoughts of a typical student in the table below, as I felt this was slightly overlooked.  There are likely some factors I have missed but I hope it provides a useful summary.

The Student View
Reasons for Reasons Against
Enjoyable lessons Oral exams
Useful skill Memorisation
Good for CV/Uni Fear of speaking in front of others
Mixture of exam and coursework Not feeling competent enough
Cultural interest Too hard and too much writing
Holiday use “Never going to go there”
All-round skill improvement Easier options around
Cognitive challenge Everyone speaks English belief

Table generated at http://www.tablesgenerator.com/html_tables#

Rather than further provide reasons for the decline or talk about how to increase the profile of languages in schools, I think the answer comes from the individual classroom.  Students need a feeling of capability, enjoyment and progress.

Creating a feeling of capability

“Capability” is often seen as a negative word in the teaching profession and understandably so, however our students need to feel that they “can do” something. Students equate their capability in a language with their oral and aural competence. Can they say what they want to say?  Can they understand what is being said? In my experience, reading and writing do not appear to enter into their equation to any great degree. The following are comments I have heard from students, friends, colleagues past and present:

  • “I was no good at languages in school”
  • “I couldn’t do languages”
  • “I’m not good at languages” (uttered by a year 7 September 2014 in his first ever Spanish lesson)
  • “I can’t do languages.”

All of these statements beg one question “compared to who?”  My first memory of using a language in a foreign country was ordering ice-creams in a small village in Germany.  It essentially required remembering the words “ich möchte” and reading off the menu.  We need real-life scenarios in our classrooms where students can try and practise things.  This will lead to a feeling of “can do”.  Our students need interactive episodes that simulate real life or situations that allow them to talk for extended periods.  Here are 3 activities I like to use whenever I can:

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Debates (based on group talk) – Watch the video and note how the talking situations are cyclical.  There is not actually an end to the discussion.  You can get students to add in a new question or take the discussion in a different way.  When I have done this kind of activity with students there is an immense feeling of satisfaction in the room that they have spoken French/Spanish/German for 3-4 minutes non-stop.  For example: school subjects – there are enough subjects to keep them going for quite a while!  If not, just add in “defensa contra las artes oscuras”, “transfiguración” and “pociones”.

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Drama – The hard bit is getting the balance between scriptwriting (which some groups will take ages to do) and practising/performing.  Ideally a lot of pre-teaching, listening and roleplaying will help with this.  Students tend to enjoy it as they feel they have survived a real-life situation.  Restaurants, asking for directions, 112 calls, meeting and greeting can all be done as dramatic episodes.

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“I can’t help noticing I’m considerably richer than you” – based on the Harry Enfield sketch where a couple boast about being considerably more well off.   Students need to better the previous person’s use of the TL when talking about a topic.  They can add reasons, linking words, other tenses.  The idea is that what is constructed is significantly better than what went before.  Together the students will construct something better while teaching and helping each other in the process.

Engendering a feeling of Enjoyment

Enjoyment is not a synonym for games.  I have seen a variety of games in the past few years but when using them the question has to be: how much TL is this going to involve?  What learning return is the whole class getting from the game?  If students are sat there and their brains are doing very little during a game, is it worth doing or could the time be better spent?  Games that involve collaboration, competition, mystery, intrigue and humour are great.  I was going to list a few but I think I will direct you towards this list and put my favourite below.  I really like the look of “alibi” and “press conference” and will try them in a few weeks time.

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Battleships – probably my favourite in class game.  Minimal prep and maximum TL

Real Progress

I ran out of alliterative titles for the last section but if you think of one put it in the comments section!  Students need to feel that they are progressing in a language.  Sublevels and levels do not appear to have a massive effect on this.  Daniel T. Willingham’s superb book “Why don’t students like school?”  looks to have some thoughts with regards to this but I haven’t finished it yet!  There will be a post when I do, as it has been an excellent and eye-opening read so far.

In the meantime I find the following help to engender a feeling of progress among students:

  1. When a student has improved over time, praise them quietly for it.
  2. Comments in books referring students to their previous work and comparing it with improved work you have seen.  Show them the results of their learning and that they actually have made an improvement.
  3. Parents evening is useful particularly if you met the same parents the previous year eg: “Abigail has really come a long way since we last spoke.  Her work has improved and she is also contributing more frequently in class.  I was particularly pleased with her preparation and result in the recent speaking assessment.  It showed just how far she has come.”
  4. Use your own experiences as we were not all born with the ability to speak a language.  Tell them that it has been hard at times, explain how it feels to “plateau” for a while and then when you noticed the improvements.  Students need to know that the person in front of them has fought the same battles with understanding that they are currently fighting.
  5. Share the nature of learning with them.  The conciousness/capability model was something Louis Van Gaal mentioned in an interview and I think it helps to some degree in understanding the process of learning.  My students seemed to appreciate it.
    1. Unconcious & Incapable (don’t know it – can’t do it)
    2. Concious & Incapable (know it – can’t do it)
    3. Concious & Capable (Know it – can do it)
    4. Unconcious & Capable (Know it – can do it unthinkingly)

Ultimately the goal of any language teaching and learning is to get the students to stage 4.

I guess the point of this rather lengthy, meandering and reflective blog-post is a call to myself and maybe other teachers out there to absolutely go for it from September. There is a decline in languages uptake at GCSE nationwide.  Whilst there is a national battle over the future of language learning; there is a local battle to be won.  I firmly believe that generating a feeling of genuine capability, real enjoyment and visible progress in our own learners is our best bet at winning that battle.  When September starts I will have at least 360 kids enter my room and that is what I’m going for.

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