Whether pupils are discussing holidays or train timetables, we as teachers often focus on the content of the topic rather than the larger pattern of progression in a language. However, several important skills are key to progress in modern foreign languages - the concepts and procedural knowledge which create competent linguists. What are these skills and how should they influence our approach?
There are three types of desired linguistic outcome: * Modular - the content of the topic in terms of vocabulary and structures; * Longitudinal - skills recurring across topic boundaries, eg reading strategies, pronunciation and dictionary skills; * background - eg the ability to operate in a wide range of situations.
Longitudinal outcomes have tended to be less highlighted when setting lesson objectives, along with background outcomes. But they are the essence of language-learning, and represent progression up the scale of competency - for instance, the ability to use words, phrases and ideas creatively in increasingly complex sentences, or operating in a variety of situations.
Making good linguists
If we can make pupils more aware of the existence of these key skills and concepts we will help them to see the pattern of language-learning rather than a set of separate topics, and a good place to start is with the textbook.
Imagine a lesson about daily routine, with the usual modular outcomes.
Closer study of the tasks provided in your textbook will offer inspiration for your longitudinal and background outcomes. For instance, you might decide to focus on verb endings as your longitudinal aim. An extended writing task might support your background objective as you study ways to make extended writing more stylish.
Revisit the level descriptors
A staff session spent re-reading the key stage 3 national curriculum level descriptors reminds us, for example, that progress in listening is in terms of depth of response, increased complexity and unpredictability of texts, and greater ability to deduce meaning from the context. These are the background outcomes of listening.
Are our pupils aware of this, and do we use listening texts to teach these skills actively, or simply to "complete Activite 3b"? By looking at units in this way, a department can support the systematic progress of pupils in the key areas which raise attainment. Certainly the scheme of work should provide a structure for the teaching of all three types of outcome, not just the modular.
If we want pupils to be better writers, for instance, we need to teach them how to be precise, how to write for an audience, to take risks with language, to extend their range of structures and vocabulary. This should be mapped in the scheme of work with visible progression across the key stage. If your department is using the KS3 MFL Framework you will be aware that the objectives are of the longitudinal or background variety and, once mapped onto your KS3 textbook, will clearly help you cover the patterns for success in language-learning.
Starters and plenaries
An ideal place to hone pupils' longitudinal skills is in your starter activities. Aspects of language acquisition, such as pronunciation, inflections, word order and application of prior knowledge can all be regularly revisited and consolidated.
It pays to point out to pupils that this linguistic know-how applies to any language and across all topic areas.
Reflection on process and technique is another key to developing greater awareness of pattern. In our plenary we can ask pupils what made a task easier or harder, what strategies they applied, or where else they could use this idea. It helps at this stage to have words to describe processes.
Frequently used processes in MFL include adapting, combining, skimming, paraphrasing and predicting.
Pupils can be prompted via a wall-display to consider which learning strategies they have used or could use.
With Framework fundamentals in place, at KS4 a worthwhile teacher activity will be to analyse some GCSE question papers to determine exactly what skills are required of pupils, then to study pupil scripts, noting which skills are less developed. GCSE revision can then be targeted at plugging gaps in skills as well as vocabulary.
As we shift our teaching emphasis from topics to skills we should find that pupils become more independent and motivated learners of language.
l The series is archived at www.tes.co.uk
Andrea Osborne is a KS3 foundation subjects consultant with Essex County Council and a languages teacher.
She can be contacted on 020 8506 2089.