How to engage disaffected learners in Modern Foreign Languages

An Action Research Project by Jo Whalley (MFL)

Context

In September 2015, I began as Head of MFL. I inherited a number of classes who had had a disjointed experience in the previous academic year and therefore had a very negative view of language learning. Engagement in lessons was poor from the outset and behaviour was not good in a number of classes. Many of the learners lacked confidence. As such, language learning can pose some barriers for many students.

Strategy

I had previously attended some training by Martine Pillette about the New Secondary Curriculum and it taught me how with less restrictions on the content covered at KS3 and a greater focus on the skills of language learning, I could find authentic, appealing resources to engage learners in languages. I was interested in her approaches so I did some further reading namely, ‘Motivating reluctant learners at 14-16’ and also ‘Independent reading – how to make it work’.

This helped me develop my strategy in firstly building confidence in comprehension skills.

  • First of all, to build student confidence by fostering effective strategies to develop comprehension skills.
  • Use of authentic materials to genuinely appeal to teenagers (music, film, magazines and books)
  • To use whatever resources we could to engage students on an intellectual level not just language learning for language learning’s sake. I wanted to appeal to their curiosity to WANT to understand the language.

Actions

I set about researching animated films which students already knew to exploit language from. For example, I used clips/images to support personal descriptions and the description of animals in Year 7 French lessons and for describing food and using the past tense in Year 8.

 I developed skills for reading for gist with a four point plan of how to tackle longer pieces of reading and unknown language:

  1. Read and highlight cognates (words that look and sound similar in the target language and have a shared meaning e.g. la television)
  2. Look for familiar words in the target language
  3. Make connections and try to work out what might make sense
  4. If a particular word is still a barrier to your understanding use a dictionary

I used video clips/images and songs from these films to develop listening skills, predominantly using “listening bingo” (Fig. 1) as a technique to stop students worrying about the words they don’t know an instead to focus on picking out familiar language.

JWH - bingo

Figure 1 – an example of a ‘listening bingo’ slide from Year 8

Secondly, I developed three week mini projects to enrich the existing schemes of work. I devised a mini unit of work based around the French classic “Le Petit Prince” which had recently been released as an animated film. This enabled me to produce an abridged version of the book for students to read, again developing their reading techniques. In addition, I produced a short module on endangered species and Virunga National Park in Congo. I hoped that these projects would be sufficiently different from other areas of study that the pupils would be genuinely keen to work on these topics.

With Year 9 French, I developed a module of lessons about French music. I started firstly with Daft Punk, David Guetta and Madeon as they would hopefully be artists they had heard of. We developed reading skills of biographies of the artists and listening skills by studying the lyrics of some of the songs. Some of these lessons led to other interesting spin offs such as the artist Stromae whose name is made using the Parisian underground language “verlan” which inverts words (Fig.2). Students found this very interesting and enjoyed trying to decode the “verlan”, students resilience was noticeably improved when reading something which appealed to them (Fig. 3).

In Parisian suburbs an underground language is used amongst young people. They take the two halves of the word and invert them.

maestro

(a distinguished musician, especially a conductor of classical music)

becomes

Stro mae

Figure 2 – What is Verlan?

JWH - verlan

Figure 3: Verlan activity slide from a Year 9 lesson

Finally, I have been trying to engage boys in particular by developing more SMARTBOARD resources. Powerpoint can be rather static and the drag and drop, reorder and match up tasks that can be produced on SMART are far more engaging for them. I have developed some resources of this nature for Year 8 Spanish and Year 7 & 8 French.

Impact

The main focus for these strategies has been with Years 7 & 8 French, though some strategies have been used with Year 9. The current year 7 average National Curriculum Level is higher than it was this time last year with the current year 8. The current year 7 & 8 French classes show greater resilience and independence when working on longer reading tasks and faced with listening to language spoken at normal speed. Student feedback on these approaches has been overwhelmingly positive. They especially feel that they can read with greater success.

Next steps

Overhaul all units of work to reflect the approaches identified above

Develop the resources needed for the Year 8 and 9 Schemes of Work

Continue to build on the pupils’ listening skills as this is still seen as intimidating by some, especially the less able.

Sources/References

‘Motivating reluctant learners at 14-16’ – by Martine Pillette, published by Collins Educational 1997

‘Independent reading – how to make it work’ – by Martine Pillette, published by Collins Educational 1997

Featured image: Citroen 2CV (original image) by PIRO4D at Pixabay, licensed under CC 0 Public Domain

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