I teach in a 13-18 High School in the North East of England. We roll over our timetable after the Whit holiday, so our y9 students have already embarked on their GCSE option courses. I’ve therefore only taught this particular class for 2 weeks and they have come to me via 4 different year 9 teachers. This, coupled with their often varied Middle School experiences, makes for a diverse range of language learning ‘histories’ in the one room! I use this time before the summer break to get the group to gel and used to working with different people as I’m really in favour of a cooperative, collaborative and communicative classroom.
In addition, I’m also a big advocate of ‘deliberate practice’ – not just for us teachers but also for students; let them work out the qualities of an excellent, effective answer and then create the opportunities to demonstrate that understanding. I also agree with Tom Sherrington when he encourages us to have a ‘Total Philosophy for G&T’; irrespective of the data, be explicit in what constitutes an ‘A / A* answer, demystify it to students, let them deconstruct it and try to create their own version.
The topic we’re on right now is family and relationships and because of my earlier comment regarding their different backgrounds, I’ve gone right back to basics and taken this as an opportunity to review descriptions, both physical and personality based, and also to review some key grammar points, namely: ‘avoir’ and’ être’ verb paradigms and adjectival agreement.
When the students arrived (last lesson on Friday), a very ‘average,’ descriptive answer was displayed on the IWB with the question: What makes an excellent answer?’ At this point, I’m purposefully not using an ‘A/A* answer’. By the time they’d all arrived and had a chance to analyse the model answer, we all agreed that it required improvement but what exact improvements could they suggest?
The students, using Think, Pair, Share, had to find 3 specific improvements they’d give to the writer of this answer. They came up with exactly what I’d anticipated and indeed, what I wanted them to acknowledge. They stated: the answer would benefit from opinions, justifications and connectives in order to make it more interesting. But how many of these key words (and they are ‘key’ across any topic, not just descriptions) did they know or remember? They were then given 90 seconds to complete as much of the following sheet as possible:
They then shared it with their neighbour, any adding they may have missed and finally combined with another pair to repeat the process. We regrouped as a class to review their findings and this gave me an opportunity to check their understanding and to see exactly how much of this vocabulary they knew. We then referred back to the introductory ‘boring’ answer and they shared 2 ways of improving it with their partner.
The class of 30 was then split into 15 mixed ability pairs and each given 1 of 3 different family photos. Examples here:
They had 9 minutes with their partner to write a detailed description of their ‘new’ family. They would then ‘compete’ against a rival pairing with the same family photo to see who had produced the ‘best’ answer. But how would we decide which answer was the best? Well, from previous lessons we knew that the accuracy of our language was important; otherwise clear communication would not be possible. But we now knew that these extra elements – opinions etc were also
important. So I introduced them to the concept of ‘What’s your answer worth?’ For every correct and accurate formation of ‘avoir’ or ‘être’ they’d score 10 points, for every correct adjective / noun agreement, they’d score 20 points. I deliberately concealed the value of the key vocabulary and warned them as they started on their descriptions to watch out for ‘interruptions!’ 2 minutes into the process, the timer was paused; they downed their pens and I threw out to them the first of their thought bombs – or coloured balls. Each ball had a key word on it along with its value. The challenge was now to include this in their writing and thereby get the points it generated. For those however, who had already used their word, the added bonus was they doubled the value of that word.
At this point the nature of their writing really changed. Whereas, before they’d been writing descriptively – hair, eye colour etc they now reviewed their writing really critically, editing it as a work in progress in order to use these expressions, looking for opportunities to DELIBERATELY use them. At this stage, only 1 group had used their code word.
5 minutes in and the second bombs arrived, colour coded to identify the second round. By now 6 groups had already used the bomb that came their way, so my objective was steadily being achieved. Was this luck or deliberate practice? Well, probably a bit of both.
1 minute from the end and the final bombs were launched. By the end of the 9 minutes, all but 2 of the 15 groups had managed to use all 3 of their code words. I allowed for 90 seconds of final proof reading, with a reminder to our marking policy/taxonomy of errors.
With the aid of a random name selector (lolly sticks) and the visualiser, 2 groups went up against each other to battle it out. I marked the work ‘live,’ using the visualiser to make it clear to students how and why credit was being awarded, thereby demystifying the marking process. A final twist to the process was that any ‘unused’ bombs were deducted from the overall score.
2 students led the Review and identified the following:
-there is a ‘core’ of key vocabulary which you can use to improve the linguistic range of an answer (we will continue to add to this ‘core’)
-this ‘core’ is transferable, whatever the topic
-with skilful writing/redrafting you CAN and SHOULD include these words deliberately and consciously
I think this last observation is really important as it shows students are starting to grasp that ‘thinking on your feet’ and reacting spontaneously is an important skill to develop as a successful languages learner (even if it does fly in the face of the diet of rote learning that is Controlled Assessment!)
Yes, I could have easily lectured my students on the need to include this type of vocabulary in their answers or just have assumed that they would do it automatically. But to be honest, neither approach has really worked before.
This activity at got their attention, engaged and challenged them. Has it worked? Well I’ll see on Wednesday when I take their homework in…..