Make language lessons something to shout about

Neil Jarrett

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With Brexit just around the corner, children may think that studying languages is less important than before. However, it is vital to emphasise the aims of a “global Britain” in schools. Teachers must highlight the benefits of learning a language, which include broadening horizons and career prospects; instilling confidence; and fostering an understanding of different cultures and world affairs.

So how, as teachers, do we instil a love for languages in children?

Teaching vocabulary and grammar in an exciting way – and trying not to be too repetitive or didactic – can be a challenge. But the following innovative teaching strategies, resources and ideas may help you in the classroom.

Modern language assistants

Modern language assistants are native speakers who work alongside the main teacher to develop pupils’ language skills. Their first-hand knowledge of their home culture also makes them a useful addition to the classroom.

Sian Carr, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said recently: “Hosting a language assistant is an extremely effective way of supporting both teachers in the delivery and students in their preparation of the demands of the new GCSEs and A-level.

“Research has shown that an opportunity to learn with an ambassador from another country can help to raise attainment, both in motivating underachieving pupils and in challenging the most talented to achieve more.”

What in-class activities could you ask your language assistant to do?  I find the following to be helpful:

  • Role-playing with small groups or with the teacher in front of the class (excellent for modelling language structures and accents).
  • Question time with the class about their culture.
  • Bringing in items from their home country such as flags, photographs or artwork.
  • One-to-one support with both high achievers and those in need of extra assistance.
  • Playing language games.
  • Leading a link with a school from their home country (setting up a pen pal scheme).

Harness technology

Targeted language apps are an excellent resource. I myself am currently learning Mandarin with the help of the Chinese Skill app. After my lessons with a tutor, I use the app to practise and learn extra vocabulary.

And Mandarin isn’t the only language you can learn; there are plenty of apps (and a vast range of languages) to choose from – just search and select one with good ratings. Try setting your students home learning exercises and challenges in which they have to complete levels or activities on these apps.

Podcasts are also a good way to give children some extra language support, and for encouraging them to practise all the skills needed for learning a language. The great thing is that children can listen in their free time or when on the move, for example on the bus to school.

Another online resource is interactive language books and tools. I have used these with my English as an additional language (EAL) class and the children learn a lot from them. The fact that they can click on a word they may not know and listen to it being read aloud (along with a pop-up definition) is very helpful indeed. The website Readwritethink is an excellent source for these kinds of materials.

Furthermore, you can find numerous websites packed with linguistic-based resources such as worksheets and activity ideas: just use a search engine to find what you are looking for. I like using children’s news websites with my EAL class. DOGO news is a particular favourite because it keeps the language simple and child-friendly. Additionally, it puts questions at the bottom of each article asking the pupils about what they have just read: perfect for checking for comprehension.

Reach out overseas

You can also use the internet to set up a two-way conversation, via etwinning. The idea behind this is to enable schools in different countries to collaborate online, sharing work, learning together and completing projects as a team. In the past, my class worked with a school based in Bucharest which was a huge success, with the exchange of cultures being a particularly positive aspect. Check out this website to find out how to set up one of these links.

Have you ever tried flipping your classroom? This is where students go through the instructional material on their own before class, so that you can spend your teaching time extending their learning with activities that might more traditionally be set as homework. For example, ask your pupils to watch a video or listen to a podcast the evening before your class, then use the actual lesson time to undertake an activity based on what they’ve already learned. This will help you to identify and support the children who are finding the learning a challenge, and also to deepen their knowledge by exploring a subject in more detail.

Finally, to assess the progress of your class, try a quiz tech tool such as Kahoot! You can create your own vocabulary or grammar test (or search for a ready-made one online), and then get the children to complete it. My class absolutely love it; it’s a perfect example of the gamification of learning.

Learn from the Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP)

The Department for Education’s Mandarin Excellence Programme, delivered by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) in partnership with the British Council, was introduced in England last year. The scheme aims to ensure that at least 5,000 pupils will be on track towards fluency in Mandarin Chinese by 2020. Schools taking part receive funding, resources and year-round support to help them deliver the programme.

Pupils on the programme spend eight hours a week studying the language – an unprecedented opportunity when it comes to language learning. Schools taking part in the MEP must deliver four hours of face-to-face Mandarin teaching per week (to selected pupils) and the students must engage in a further four hours of self-study per week.

A recent study by the IOE evaluated how the MEP was being taught in several schools. The most effective approaches according to teachers delivering the programme included:

  • Targeted objectives (giving children personalised goals with clear tasks to complete each week).
  • Independent learning booklets (these reinforced knowledge, challenged the students to absorb extra vocabulary and encouraged research into Chinese culture).
  • Edmodo (an online classroom allowing teachers and students to share information and resources).
  • MEP student projects (extra learning challenges for pupils to complete outside the classroom).
  • Edtech language learning tools (the most popular were GoChinese, The Chairman’s Bao, Memrise, Hello Chinese, LyricLaoshi and Rosetta Stone).

The study also demonstrated the positive impact of Chinese-speaking language assistants. They are primarily there to support the class teacher during MEP lessons, set up workshops for pupils who need extra support, help pupils practise their speaking one-to-one, and to deliver weekly language and culture clubs.

In conclusion, learning languages is immensely important in our increasingly globalised world. Have a go at using some of these strategies in your own practice, and help to create a new generation of bilingual learners.

Neil Jarrett is a year 6 leader at an international school in Shanghai. He blogs at Edtech4beginners.com and tweets @edtechneil


Neil Jarrett

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