Fruitful thoughts

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Enhance your lessons with an infusion of thinking skills. Mei Lin and Cheryl Mackay offer a taster activity

"Knowing how" is the key to effective learning. This has been recognised in numerous recent initiatives, including the development of thinking skills.

The national curriculum stresses a focus for pupils on "knowing how" as well as "knowing what" - learning how to learn. This is formalised in five thinking skills: information processing, reasoning, inquiry, creative thinking and evaluation skills.

Links between thinking skills and "knowing how" permeate the key stage 3 national strategy. In modern foreign languages, CILT, the National Centre for Languages, says that 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales are now using the KS3 modern foreign languages framework. The framework stresses not just teaching objectives, but also learning processes - focusing on "how to learn" rather than "what to learn".

The Thinking Skills Research Centre at the University of Newcastle is pioneering research on infusing thinking skills into the curriculum.

Research demonstrates the motivational value of teaching thinking and suggests long-term learning gains.

Teaching thinking has had a powerful impact, raising awareness of how pupils learn and developing their potential for learning. Thinking skills lessons also lend themselves very well to diagnostic assessment of gaps in pupils' learning. Lessons which "take the lid off" how children think and learn enable teachers to make informed decisions about how and when they might best intervene to take learning forward.

Our experience of working with teachers suggests that the infusion of thinking skills into modern foreign languages lessons provides teachers with a common language for talking about teaching and learning. This facilitates professional dialogue both within the subject area and across the curriculum.

Our book, Thinking Through Modern Foreign Languages, in the Thinking Through... series edited by David Leat, recognises that direct links between thinking skills and modern foreign languages are not always obvious. It may not be easy for teachers to find ways of infusing thinking skills into their lessons. The book intends to address this, by providing: la starting point for teachers - concrete examples of thinking skills lessons with detailed instructions and resources; linsight into theories and principles of learning which underpin teaching thinking; lessential tools to help teachers develop their own ideas.

In professional development terms, the book aims to: lshift teachers' focus away from the delivery of content to understanding learning processes in the modern foreign languages classroom; lprovide a framework for teachers to reflect on and evaluate their own practice, beliefs and values; lenable teachers to do what they are already doing even better.

Thinking Through Modern Foreign Languages also aims to put fun, motivation and intellectual challenge back into language learning and satisfaction back into its teaching. The materials are based on thinking skills strategies developed by the Thinking Skills Research Centre. Ideas were developed and trialled by practising teachers in classrooms in the north east of England, with pupils from a range of backgrounds. A taster lesson is provided below. Many thanks to Susan Lee, St Thomas More RC School, Blaydon, for trialling the activity and for her feedback.

Dr Mei Lin is director of a masters programme in applied linguistics and Tesol at University of Newcastle and member of the TSRC Cheryl Mackay is MFL PGCE tutor at the University of Newcastle



This Taboo activity involves pupils in using the target language to describe fruit and vegetables but without using any colours.

How Taboo works

* Pupils work in groups of two or three.

* Each group is given three word cards, each containing the name of a fruit or vegetable in the target language.

* Pupils will need about 15 minutes to prepare descriptions of their three fruitvegetables.

* Pupils need to produce at least three sentences for each description.

* The description should be as precise as possible for others to guess.

* There are two rules to stress:

1. Pupils are not allowed to use any colours in their descriptions ; 2. Pupils in the group must agree on the sentences they want to use.

* Once descriptions are prepared, double up the groups. Groups take turns to describe and guess the identity of the fruit or vegetable being described.

* If time permits, allow pupils another chance to describe their words to another group. Build in a two to three-minute review time first so they have the chance to revise their original descriptions in the light of the first round.

* If time does not permit, it is more important to proceed to the plenary and give pupils the opportunity to reflect.

What you will need

* A list of fruit and vegetables in the target language from previous lessons (see example provided in English).

* Flashcards or other visual material to revise this vocabulary.

* Three word cards for each group plus some spares for early finishers.

* An estimated minimum time of 55 minutes. This breaks down into: Launching Taboo (15 minutes);

Preparing for Taboo (15 minutes);

Playing Taboo (10 minutes per round);

Reflecting on what was learnt (15 minutes).


The launching gets pupils thinking straight away. In this case, the purpose is to make pupils aware of the sort of language they can draw on and the process of using the target language to describe fruit and vegetables. Engage pupils as follows.

* Use visuals to reactivate pupils' knowledge of the vocabulary for fruit and vegetables.

* Brainstorm with pupils the sort of language they might use to describe fruit and vegetables in the target language and write this up on the board.

* Based on the brainstorm, model for pupils the process of describing in the target language. You might consider using one fruit and one vegetable for modelling. Here are some examples of the sort of language that you might use when modelling for pupils in the target language :

* Whether a fruit or vegetable (It is ...)

* Size, Shape, Texture, Hard or Soft (It is ... It is not ... + comparatives + quantifiers etc.)

* How is eaten (You eat it ... You don't eat it ... you eat it with ...)

* Country of origin (It comes from ...)

* Taste or smell (It tastessmells ... It doesn't tastesmell ...)

* What's inside or outside (It has ... It hasn't got ...)

Preparing and playing Taboo

When pupils are engaged in preparing their descriptions and playing the game, try to move around and note how pupils are approaching the task.

This information may be used in the plenary.

Reflecting - the plenary

The purpose of the plenary is to reflect on the learning. Here are some suggested questions to guide reflection.

* Which were the best descriptions? Why?

* What helped you give a good description?

* Did you find any parts difficult? How did you get round that?

* Would you do anything differently next time?

* Can you think of any other situations where you could use the skills that you've been using today?

If your pupils are new to reflection you might find it helpful to build in a couple of minutes for pupils to discuss first in pairs.

Other ways of doing this activity or using it as a follow-up You might want to use this activity as a way of developing risk taking and oral communication skills. This would involve giving each group a complete set of cards and asking them to do the Taboo activity without prior preparation. This puts pupils in a situation where they need to think on their feet in order to communicate with others. In this case, the plenary might focus on communication skills and strategies.

* If you try this taster, or any other thinking skills strategies - either from the book or your own idea, Mei and Cheryl would be pleased to hear from you.

Email: or

* Thinking Through Modern Foreign Languages by Mei Lin and Cheryl Mackay is published by Chris Kington, pound;35

* CILT (2004) Language Trends 2004 - available from
















Water melon



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