An Action Research project by Iranzu Esparza (MFL)
To encourage pupils’ motivation, progress and interest in MFL through an email and project exchange with a Spanish speaking school
Background and context
It is important to bring language to life through engaging teaching and learning materials and through direct contact with native speakers. Although some of our students have the opportunity to travel to Spanish speaking countries with their families, not all do, and those who go on holidays tend to stay in English and international resorts where the need to speak in Spanish to communicate is minimal. Therefore, I decided to set up an email and project exchange with a school in a Spain to provide the students with the opportunity to communicate with native students of their age with the a view to encouraging their motivation and enhancing their progress. Also, two of my GCSE students had approached me and asked about conversation lessons with native speakers to further develop their speaking skills. I thought ‘ePals’ could help them.
The first exchange with a school in Málaga
I registered with ePals (a safe, on-line platform for project exchanges between schools all around the world) and was contacted by a school in Málaga.
We paired the students from both countries with individuals of similar abilities and interests. It was agreed that each student would write a presentation about themselves in the language they were studying and would add a final paragraph in their mother tongue.
On a practical level a number of problems arose during the process:
1) The teacher with whom the link was made was not the teacher of the Spanish group involved, but the coordinator for extracurricular activities. Any decision or plan had to go through her to the class teacher, who did not have the same motivation or time for the project as she did.
2) The Spanish school was very small and had limited ICT facilities, which made any direct Skype exchange between students on pre-prepared questions and answers impossible. They could not take a whole class to an ICT room at a time either therefore Spanish students could not complete their presentations and email them from school. As a result, some of my pupils were getting messages and others who had less motivated Spanish ePals, were not.
3) Problems with the ePals site for a period of time meant that the students lost the spontaneity to exchange messages with their Spanish ePals directly, since all exchanges had to go via their teacher email, who had to forward them to the teacher in the other country. This generated a considerable workload for the teachers too.
Conclusions from this first exchange
For future exchanges to work effectively:
1) The partner school needs to be interested exclusively in an exchange of work between students.
2) The school needs to have sufficient ICT facilities.
3) The teacher involved in the partner school needs to be the teacher of the students to avoid delays and also to agree on the topics, dates and activities.
4) An alternative platform to ePals had to be found to enable students to exchange emails directly with their e-partners safely. This system also had to enable teachers to monitor the messages in the interests of e-safety.
Impact of the first exchange
Although the overall result of this first exchange was not as successful as hoped, my students produced some lovely compositions about themselves in Spanish for their ePals. They enjoyed getting their ePals’ messages and finding out about them. They also exchanged Christmas Cards and swapped parcels with typical Christmas foods from both countries.
Some students in the class were highly motivated writing or skyping in Spanish and gaining confidence at communicating with native speakers of their own age.
The second exchange with a school in Lleida
I discussed with our Network Manager possible alternatives to ePals and we decided new school Google accounts and passwords could be created for my students. These could be safely monitored by the school. Then I set out to find a new partner school. I established contact with a school in Lleida, Catalonia. The Spanish teacher was the Head of MFL and an expert who had been running educational projects and exchanges for many years. She was very motivated and committed and so we decided to embark in a new, challenging but exciting, Prezi exchange project.
My year 10 students and their Spanish counterparts would be working in groups of 3 or 4 with their classmates producing Prezi presentations for their partner group. The Spanish teacher would guide me through a process she was familiar with. We would produce two presentations on topics that would fit in with the requirements of the GCSE syllabus of my year 10 group. The topics were: Myself and personal interests/ My school.
The Prezi programme is free for schools enabling them to create group presentations where each member of the group can upload contents individually. By clicking on the different images and texts you navigate through the group page. Thanks to our Network Manager’s technical support, each student uploaded a text presentation about themselves in the target language and also in their native language. They added their voice recording to the texts in languages, pictures and some even video clips of themselves showing what our school is like. The Spanish teacher sent me models of previous Prezis her students had made. Our network manager also created Google accounts for each of the groups to send me their presentations to be checked. The idea was that they would also be able to use these accounts to communicate with their Spanish partner group.
The final outcome and presentations were highly impressive. This is a sample of what my students produced:
Unfortunately the process to produce them was less enjoyable than the outcome and we met a good number of problems along the way.
The Spanish school students were familiar with the Prezi format and met outside lesson time or worked independently from home uploading their work. I took my group to an induction to Prezi programme session in our ICT room. They grouped themselves although I chose who would be the leader in each group. Our network manager led the training and by the end of the session they had all created the Prezi group main page and understood the basics of the programme.
The computer room was only available once in a fortnight in the timeslots I taught the group. That meant the students had to finish the presentations independently as homework. They were using the same texts they had emailed their previous pen pals in Málaga, therefore initially it seemed a straight forward task. There were problems in trying to record and upload sound files and the network manager had to record most of the students in lesson time.
Since the students were preparing a presentation without having met their pen-pal group and without having had any contact with them, it felt just like working on a group project. By the time the groups had swapped presentations many of my year 10 group had lost motivation: they were also facing exam pressures. The whole process became demanding and was taking away focus and energy from GCSE preparation.
Conclusions from the second exchange
1) Email and projects exchanges have to be carried out with year groups when they do not have exam pressure to avoid interference with assessments and preparation. A year 9 would have been ideal. Alternatively a year 8 group would have also been suitable.
2) Prezi is a fantastic programme for MFL enabling students to add texts, voice and video in the target language and in their own language for the partner school to listen to. However it would have been better to start with an email exchange between groups and then proceed to the Prezi exchange. Had the students been in contact with their ePals before embarking on a demanding task, their motivation would have been higher to impress and communicate with them.
3) To produce Prezis it is necessary to have access to the computer room for a number of consecutive lessons to ensure they are completed. It is also necessary to have ICT support unless you are familiar with the program. These projects require and encourage independence in the students. The students love working cooperatively in groups, each individual doing research composing a paragraph on a different aspect of the topic and then assembling them all together in a final presentation.
4) It is preferable to plan the number and type of exchanges (video/email/Prezis) beforehand and when it is suitable to carry them out making them fit within the scheme of work. For example, in future exchanges I would start in September with a simple email exchange where students introduce and write about themselves in the target language. Then the students could send written tasks composed in the ICT room at the end of the Autumn and Spring terms on a topic already covered in lessons, for example a PowerPoint or Word presentation about my home town, my hobbies etc. Then, at the end of the year, in July, there would be time to embark on a more demanding project like a Prezi exchange or making a video.
5) For these exchanges to work out, the contents of the messages and projects need to be what has been covered in lessons. This also enhances motivation to learn, since the students know their ePals will be the recipients of what they have been producing throughout the term. This simpler approach would make them a more realistic activity for busy teachers.
5) Again, like with the first exchange, it is important to emphasize to the partner school what type of projects you are interested in to ensure a match.
In a survey of pupils, when asked how motivating they had found the exchange projects as part of learning Spanish, 7% said ‘highly motivating’, 57% ‘motivating’, 29% ‘of little motivation’ and 7% ‘not motivating at all’.
Pupils also felt that, school trips, feeling they were making good progress and interesting and fun lessons, were the three most motivating factors in learning Spanish.
Email exchange projects, better career opportunities and the possibility of using the target language on holidays, were valued factors for a good number of students although a minority of pupils did not consider these to be as motivating.
In a questionnaire about their experience of the exchange projects the feedback was as follows:
64% of students only communicated with their ePals when the teacher gave a task related to the project, 14% communicated on a regular, almost daily basis and 29% communicated with their ePals weekly. The majority had only contacted their epal via the email provided by the school, but the most used media after that was instagram with one student using Skype on a regular basis. Two students had also exchanged MSN messages and used Whatsapp.*(see note about e-safety)
Regarding the choice of language, the majority of our students wrote in Spanish and their epal replied in English, followed by a good number that wrote in English and received replies in English too. This second choice is not so conducive to learning Spanish! A minority wrote in English and received replies in Spanish or even wrote in Spanish and were answered in Spanish. However, most students used 2 of these 4 alternatives instead of only 1 consistently.
Most conversations revolved around the topics of friendship, interests, hobbies and school, with only 2 students asking their ePals for support with their Spanish homework.
The majority of the students felt it helped them improve because “I made the effort to understand them”, “I had actual conversations”, “I could talk to them about my daily life”, “It was fun”.
The three students who felt unmotivated explained that they were writing in English and their ePals replied in English, therefore there was no learning or excitement about the exchanges.
Regarding what could have been done differently these were cited; “better suited ePal partners”, “more chances to talk to them during lessons and on Skype” activities taking place in class and not as part of homework”.
The majority of the students enjoyed the exchange with Malaga more because it was more personal and they communicated more often. They also valued the exchange of typical Christmas foods. Two of the students preferred the exchange with Lleida because they enjoyed working with their friends in groups making the Prezis and they felt it was more structured.
Therefore, it is clear that an exchange where students can communicate independently via a safe platform that can be monitored is clearly preferable to more complicated group presentations using Prezi. Also, students value more one to one exchanges because they are more personal to group work exchanges.
Although both projects ran their course and finished, they have been an invaluable source of information about our students’ preferences and how to successfully carry out email or ICT based exchanges taking into account the demands of the curriculum and the demands they make on teachers’ time.
Maintaining e-safety throughout the exchange was a priority, with information and consent forms shared with parents, expectations clearly laid out with students and platforms used which allowed interactions to be monitored. However pupils’ knowledge and use of social media meant that a number of students did use other media, such as Whatsapp and Instagram to communicate with their partners.
– What research says about using ICT in Modern Foreign languages:
-Key Motivational Factors and How Teachers Can Encourage Motivation in their Students Aja Dailey, University of Birmingham,
-To find partner schools:
The British council website: https://www.britishcouncil.org/
The ePals website: https://www.ePals.com/#/connections
To get started with the Prezi programme