Share the secrets with pupils

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Een appel is rood,

de zon is geel,

de hemel is blauw,

een blad is groen...

(An apple is red,

the sun is yellow,

the sky is blue,

grass is green ...)

These lines are taken from a poem by Dutch writer Joan Walsh Anglund, cited in Part I of Doing it for themselves, published by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, this summer. Once you have spotted the repetitive pattern and the theme of colours it is easy to work out the meaning.

Or is it? Vee Harris believes successful language learners use a combination of strategies - identifying cognates, interpreting context, prediction and plain common sense. Language teachers do these things instinctively, but they don't always share the secret with their pupils.

Although the communicative approach was not intended to dilute analytical skills, in reality that is what happened. The revised national curriculum marked a turning point but the real impetus for change has been the key stage 3 framework. Pupils are now expected to work things out for themselves and reflect not only on what they learn but how they learn it.

Senior lecturer in educational studies at Goldsmiths College, Vee Harris has spent many years researching learning strategies. She applauds the change of direction but warns that learner self-management cannot be achieved overnight; it takes lots of practice, and students need time to reflect. She makes a distinction between the cognitive strategies required to tackle a specific task, such as making sense of a text or memorising vocabulary, and the more holistic metacognitive strategies of planning, monitoring and evaluation, which facilitate independence. Both are thoroughly explored in the book, which offers practical advice, based on the experience of teachers and her own PGCE students, together with pupil-friendly checklists for different skills.

But if pupils are to share ideas, try out new strategies and discuss their conclusions, what language should they use? With younger learners it has to be English, she believes, although it may be possible to scaffold a gradual shift towards target language as they progress.

Alison Thomas

* Doing it for themselves: Focus on learning strategies and vocabulary building by Vee Harris and David Snow, is published by CILT Publications, pound;10, and is available from Central BooksTel: 0845 458 9910


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