Cordero's Classroom

The thoughts, ideas and discoveries of an MFL teacher.

Applying The Variation Theory to MFL

Christmas has almost arrived, and I recently found myself having a catch -up call with my brother, who is currently training in the North East to become a maths teacher. He’s a maths graduate from Durham University, and he wanted to go through a lesson plan he had put together with me. During his lesson on inequalities, he was showing me several examples of inequalities he was going to use in his explanation phase. What he had pointed out, that had totally skipped my attention, was that all of the numbers and examples that he had used were very similar; the only thing that was noticeably changing was the inequalities sign. He had deliberately made it this way because he had the Variation Theory at the forefront of his thinking when he was planning this explanatory sequence, in order to focus his students’ attention on one specific part of a sequence that was changing – the inequalities sign. This got me thinking – how could I apply this theory to MFL teaching? Moreover, have I actually been doing it all along and just not put a name to it? 

The Variation Theory

The Variation Theory serves as a tool to channel student attention during explanatory sequences. As my brother had explained to me, and had shown me in his planning, the Variation Theory (Marton and Pang, 2013) suggests that ‘meanings are acquired from experiencing differences against a background of sameness, rather than experiencing sameness against background of difference.’  Barton (2018) builds on this by saying: ‘By holding everything else the same and varying one element, we can direct the students’ attention to that element so that they can predict and observe the effect it has on the answer.’ It made me think there are many times, especially when teaching grammar, when we really need to channel student attention onto minutiae to help really gain understanding – for instance when teaching the plusperfect tense in Spanish había comido (I had eaten) and how it is different to the perfect tense he comido (I have eaten). Below are some ways in which I believe applying the Variation Theory (plundered from maths!) can work in the MFL classroom.

Applying The Variation Theory in MFL

1. To help explain the subtle differences in tense formation that separate distinct tenses

If we go back to the case of the perfect tense and the plusperfect tense, they are very similar in formation in both English and in Spanish, but each tense has a nuance that separates the tenses based on firstly, when the action was completed; and secondly, the speaker’s intended message that they want to communicate with their choice of that tense. 

For the perfect tense, if we take the example of I have eaten (he comido) – the emphasis is on the fact that as of the present moment, the activity described by the verb has been completed, for now. It is formed with the present tense of the verb to have (haber), followed by a past participle.

If we now pass to the plusperfect tense in Spanish, using the example of I had eaten (había comído) – the emphasis of the action is now on the fact that the completed action has happened further in the past, before another action: había comido cuando volvió mi hermano (I had eaten when my brother returned). The only thing that differs in the formation of both tenses in Spanish is the use of the imperfect tense when conjugating haber – to have for the plusperfect tense, rather than using haber the present tense for the formation of the perfect tense. The same is true in English. 

The Variation Theory can help us to focus attention on this small, yet majorly important difference, by focusing in on two very similar examples, keeping the ‘background’ the same and putting real emphasis on the difference in the formation and how it alters the meaning. The example below is how I have delivered the two tenses before and testifies, in my eyes, to highlighting the subtle, yet major, differences between both tenses. This is something that we need to focus on in our explanation in order for our students to fully appreciate and understand when applying the tenses in spoken and written Spanish.

Explanation slides of the pluperfect and the perfect tenses in Spanish. Note – the only difference being the formation and the translation into English.

2. To help students navigate tense resources independently to revise the use and formation of different tenses.

One of the things we often get students to do is to rote learn endings for tense tests. I have done this many times in the past, then set a translation test and students have completely failed; in spite of the fact that once I start them on the paradigm endings, they know them by rote. As is such, I have set up tense crib sheets/knowledge organisers. The design is deliberate, and the examples are deliberate so as to help students to compartmentalise and block off in their heads when to use each tense and the associated endings that go with each one.

Firstly, each crib sheet starts off with an example sentence in English which is the ‘definition’ of when to use that tense. It is done with the same verb on purpose – to play, as well as the same person of the verb – 1stperson singular. It keeps the example verb consistent and, again, helps to really highlight what it is that denotes an example of that specific tense in English – such as: I have played (perfect tense), I played(preterite tense), I used to play/I was playing (imperfect tense). 

Secondly, the formation of each tense is listed. For those that require the removal of the infinitive, this is always done with the same three verbs to keep the explanation the same and to remove and background difference. The stems without the infinitive endings are always shown in exactly the same way, too, in order to display the same process is followed for regular verbs. 

Finally, the endings are listed underneath for regular verbs, and any irregular verbs are listed on the right-hand side. 

Two tense crib sheets set up, having a very similar layout and using the same verbs as examples.

Through this consistent set up, students are able to independently navigate their way around these crib sheets, but also have the differences, such as the endings, uses and their translations into English, highlighted to emphasise the differences between each tense. The marriage of both the fixed layout, consistent features and deliberate focusing of attention on set differences allows these to be given to students to learn at independently at home in order to reinforce and support the learning that goes on in the classroom. 

Closing thoughts

At the explanation stage, I see explaining and modelling with the Variation Theory in mind as serving as a scaffold to help clarify and compartmentalise the formation and the application of both tenses in students’ minds. Thinking of the bigger picture and ideal end result, I would see this as a way to eventually being able to remove any form scaffolding surrounding the use and the formation of tenses and students being able to use them autonomously and with the intended meaning they want to convey.

Further Reading:

Marton, F. and Pang, M. F. (2013) ‘Meanings are acquired from experiencing differences against a background of sameness, rather than from experiencing sameness from a background of difference: putting conjecture to the test by embedding it in a pedagogical tool’. Frontline Learning Research 1 (1) pp. 24-41. 

Barton, C. (2018) How I wish I’d taught maths. Woodbridge: John Catt 

Blind marking mocks – why I’ve changed my mind.

This year, our group of schools has opted to blind mark mock examinations in order to do everything possible to eliminate teacher bias from mock exam marking in case of having to generate Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) again for the 2021 summer exam season. I won’t lie, when I first heard this news, I was a bit uneasy – worried about giving my papers away to someone else to mark and having to place that trust in them to mark accurately. Having now gone through the process, my stance on blind marking has changed, and below is why.

Setting up blind marking


Before blind marking could take place, we had to make sure all staff were on a level playing field in terms of knowledge of exam specification and marking criteria, as well as not knowing who had completed the exams. To do this, firstly, the cover page of the exam needed to be changed. The initial idea we had was to have a fold-over flap where students wrote their names underneath; however, the pragmatics of stapling every single paper of the 210 students that sit languages papers at GCSE-level was too much in terms of workload; so instead, we opted for students writing their seat number on the front of the paper. This worked due to covid efforts forcing us to assign individual desks to students for the examinations, so we could deanonymize after the examination. Only the Key Stage lead had access to this spreadsheet, so nobody could look up who wrote a specific exam paper, keeping anonymity in order to help eliminate bias.

Initial design of the exam cover sheet with folded flap.

Having looked at the administration of how to go about blind marking, it was essential that all of the team were well versed in the marking criteria, and could apply the mark scheme appropriately and effectively so as to not over inflate grades or to be overly harsh when marking exams. As is such, we turned to the scripts and commentaries produced by AQA on scripts from the 2019 exam season in order to standardise. We all marked the exams individually first, then came together in order to discuss marks and share our rationale. After this, we then looked and compared with the AQA marks awarded and their rationale. This is what we usually do when it comes to standardisation, but what was different was that we looked for specific intricacies and patterns that AQA applied when marking, such as not giving credit for poor sequencing of tenses, that we would need to adhere to in order to mark as fairly as possibly. These were listed out in an email and sent around. Following on from standardisation was moderation, we could monitor the effectiveness of marking, comparing marks awarded to examination papers and agreeing on marks with reasoned justification, ensuring the team were on the same page.

The last consideration that was that staff teaching higher classes should only mark higher-tier examinations, as they would probably be more familiar with the higher tier mark scheme. The same idea was applied to those teachers who teach predominantly foundation-tier classes.

The benefits of blind marking

Some surprising outcomes have come about due to blind marking.

1. Increased sense of accountability to be as accurate as possible when marking. I will be the first person to admit that when I mark the work of my classes, I tend to verge on the edge of harshness so that: 1) students have room for improvement and do not get complacent with their performance; 2) so that my grades, hopefully, end up higher in the real examinations in the summer. However, when I am tasked with marking the exams of colleagues’ students that could potentially count towards CAG grades, I know I need to be more accurate. Other staff have echoed these sentiments and there is the drive to be as accurate as possible. 

2. Increased seeking of advice. Building on from the previous point, there has been a real mind-set shift in terms of asking for advice and asking for staff to read the work of a student when the examination may be difficult to mark. It has struck up professional conversations between the whole department and has helped to build subject knowledge and on-the-spot moderation of examinations.

3.  Sharing of class strengths/weaknesses. Staff, naturally, have been eager to find out how their classes have been getting on with the writing exams. Because of this want to find out how classes have done, teachers have naturally been giving general feedback, that if applied to a whole-class feedback sheet, will be invaluable for their classes and for informing practice of how to plan to plug and gaps in performance. 

The road ahead

Moving forward, even if we do not have to use CAGs next summer, I believe blind marking will see a fairer application of mark schemes of very subjective elements of the GCSE examination, such as the writing and speaking exams. Because of this, I believe that prediction accuracy, and tiering decisions, will be made to be more accurate than they have been in the past. However, to test this hypothesis, we will have to wait until the summer.

Applying Lorna Shires’s ‘Scaffolding by novice and expert teachers: the difference’ to the classroom

At my current school, I have two quite distinct roles. Firstly, I am a Second in Faculty and a Head of Key Stage (we adopt Head of Key Stages instead of Heads of Departments) – which see me focus on curriculum and pedagogical matters in Modern Foreign Languages.

Secondly, I am a school-wide Lead Practitioner, with an emphasis on the development of trainee teachers. When it comes to staff development, I feel like in the second role it is easier to quantify what staff development in the classroom looks like as I am constantly focused on the trajectory of progress of student teachers towards their awarding of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), through the use of measurement against the Teachers’ Standards. The former role is slightly different. We have an open-door policy; we have regular drop-in observations that take place every 2-3 weeks and a teacher development system based observation feedback that is centred on several habits we believe underpin quality teaching. In my faculty there are staff of varying experience – from newly qualified teachers (NQTs), to members of the senior leadership team, right up to someone who has sat on government advisory panels. I used to firmly believe it was experience and time in the classroom, alongside quality feedback, that developed those that I deemed to be novices (what I considered to be those at an early stage in their career) into experts. Having read Lorna Shires’s article – I was forced to question myself. Is it mere length of time in the classroom alone and that led to someone becoming an expert teacher? Or is there more to play than just length of time?

Shires looks explores several different ways in which experts can be defined. One explanation, offered by Hattie (2003) suggests that a mixture of factors, including outcomes, reputation, qualifications and experience define the term expert teacher. She adds to this by referring to Berliner’s (2004) stage levels in the novice to expert approach to describe different behaviours by expert and novice teachers. But rather than focus on behaviours and on length of time in the classroom, experience and reputation as a practitioner, Shires turns the attention to the fact that expert teachers have long term aims for their students that go beyond the individual lesson. Going back to looking at the question of staff progress in my faculty rather than as an ITT co-ordinator, this has changed my thinking. Am I and my team thinking long term? How do I get us all to think in the long term about pupil progress and development in language learning, rather than merely on a lesson-by-lesson basis? 

Shires suggests 5 core values that matter to expert teachers, which come together to form subject agency. Subject agency, she argues, consists of: 

  • The ability of students to do something with the knowledge of subject for themselves.
  • The importance of the process of grappling with and piecing together key ideas from the subject 
  • The stripping back key concepts, then layering up with additional detail and precision later on.
  • The offering of a metacommentary throughout the lesson that has the aim of ensuring that students trust the teachers to take them through the process of learning something new.
  • The importance of student appreciation and love of the subject, and the appreciation of the value that adds to their lives

What this means to me as a classroom practitioner is the following:

  • The liberation of students to be creative with subject knowledge and apply it to a variety of circumstances.
  • The importance of an ever-present level of challenge, which is not pitched too high and requires students to bring together new knowledge and create links with prior knowledge.
  • The ability to unpick difficult concepts, such as tenses; introduce them early in a more basic way and build on them later on to add complexity.
  • Showing my passion and love of languages and travel to implore my students to travel, question and experience culture in the future

This concept of subject agency is something I want to build and develop – firstly for myself and to ensure the students in my care get the best out of me that they can; and also, for my staff so that it takes their practice to the next level. To do this, I will be looking at task design – not just my own but also that of colleagues during observation, in order to promote the 5 core values that matter to expert teacher. Some of these I already do, some of these my team already do and here’s a few examples from our practice that fit the core values of subject agency.

1. The ability of students to do something with the knowledge of the subject for themselves.

Sometimes in lesson time, we touch on something that students particularly feel passionate about. More often than not this happens at A Level, where the content that has to be delivered better marries itself to the real world. However, how often do we stop to have a discussion in the target language at GCSE level about veganism? It comes up on the curriculum, students know food vocabulary – so why not provide them with the opportunity to discuss and argue for and against it? 

Last year, it emerged during a lesson that one of my classes was very polarised with regards to veganism, vegetarianism and pescatarianism. To capitalise on this interest, I set the class up with the vocabulary they needed to debate and built on the prior knowledge of food. Having divided the class into groups for and against and giving them time to work in groups to get their ideas together, each member of the group had to present for 1 minute on their reason whether they were in favour or against veganism. The debate that followed was heated (in a good way!) and students were using the knowledge of the subject to discuss something they were very passionate about, enthusing them in the subject. 

Elsewhere, describing photographs and adverts are regular place in the faculty. By this, I am not talking about the routine photographs that exam boards show of generic people in generic situations; rather staff are using their own photographs with cultural content, such as trying chicharrones in Cuba or eating grasshoppers in Mexico, in order to generate interest amongst students. Students are so divided in their reactions to eating tiny grasshoppers and it sees them genuinely want to use the language to put across their own opinion and express their disgust or intrigue! 

Authentic resources and experiences – asking students to describe a tapas bar in Bilbao with me buying food/una caña

2. Grappling and piecing together key ideas from the subject.

I think the part where students grapple with subject matter the most and have to piece it back together is during verb tests. In the past, I used to simply get students to conjugate verbs in a singular tense that was the subject of a homework test, such as the preterite tense in Spanish. What I realised was I was taking one step forward with one tense, and two steps backwards with the ones that I had previously covered as I wasn’t revisiting them and making them the subject of scrutiny during homework tests. When the new GCSE specification came out, I decided that this needed to change.

The imperfect, preterite, perfect and plusperfect tenses all make up a part of the past time frame in Spanish. Each one is used in its own unique way and has its own paradigm. Students need to know both, and I want my students to be proficient in their uses, so as to be ready for A Level and to get the full story. The first thing I did was to create a knowledge organiser for each tense, detailing the translation into English, the individual uses and the formation. These were sent home to be rote learned. Nothing new really to before, apart from with maybe a slightly more formal formatting.

Where the real change came, and the grappling with and piecing together of key ideas, was the way in which I tested the tenses. Multiple tenses would now feature in tests, along with space to record answers. But it wasn’t the case of simply specifying the person of the verb and the tense that the verb had to be conjugated into; the stabilisers were taken off so that students saw an English sentence, such as ‘I have played’, were given the infinitive and had to: firstly, select the appropriate tense, and then conjugate the verb in accordance to the tense. At first, there were retests galore, but I stuck with it and the accuracy of writing has improved drastically. If I didn’t believe that students needed to grapple and analyse key ideas and tenses carefully, this level of accuracy and manipulation would arguably never be as good.

The new-style verb test – mixing tenses and forcing students to really think about translation, rather than providing the tense students are required to use.

3. Stripping back key concepts and layering them up with additional detail and precision later on.

This is one thing I am aiming to push this year. I do it as it is but I want to make it more planned for. When I set marking targets, I ask students to use structures I prescribe to them, such as ‘cuando sea mayor/cuando tenga 18 años’ but unless it is a top set group, I rarely explain to the class that when cuando is used in reference to the future, you follow it with a verb in the present subjunctive. The present subjunctive is a very alien concept to an English speaker, so rather than explain it to most groups, I take the short cut of explaining it’s a set expression. This is something I need to work on and push, especially with middling groups in order to further their knowledge. I have stripped back the content but need to build it up and take the opportunity to do so more often. 


Elsewhere, in order to help students tackle their first 90-word or 150-word piece of writing, staff are introducing writing strips to help students with pointers, before gradually removing them when students are ready to have a go on their own. This allows students to write at extended lengths and really get used to it before they go it on their own in a mock exam, for example. 

Stripping down concepts – what are the basic ingredients for a 40-word essay?

4. The importance of student appreciation and love of the subject, and the appreciation of the value it adds to their lives.

This is something I hope to work on in the coming year. One thing that I have implemented to get students to appreciate and love languages is the inclusion of ‘authentic materials’ on the scheme of work – with the intention of putting authentic materials at the forefront of importance by having it on a document central to the operation of the faculty. Staff can add resources they find to this folder. Each folder marries neatly with the main subject content to be taught with each unit, in order to enhance and embellish the lesson they were going to initially deliver. My hope is that it creates some enthusiasm and interest in what life is like in another Hispanic or Francophone country; such as dealing with earthquake threats in Mexico City through to dealing with having to save water in Spain due to desertification – expanding their cultural awareness.

 I think the biggest opportunity for this core value to be met is through enrichment outside of the regular curriculum, with trips abroad and restaurant trips. With Covid, however, any trips abroad are going to be difficult. Ways in which I can see this being exploited are through seizing opportunities during enrichment weeks, such as watching films, looking at artwork or countries that maybe aren’t touched on as much in the current schemes of work in order to foster an interest and to promote investigation into these countries. 

These are some examples in my practice and that of others in the faculty, but my overall hope is that focusing on subject agency and long term objectives for our students; making them an explicit conversation topic in feedback, as well as during other opportunities such as during CPD time, will hopefully push staff development on so as to promote growth and development into expert teachers. 

Berliner, D (2004) Describing the behaviour and documenting the accomplishment os of expert teachers. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society 24: 200-212.

 Hattie, J (2003) Teachers make a difference What is the research evidence? In: Building teacher quality: What does the research tell us? ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia. October 2003. 

Shires, L (2020) Scaffolding by novice and expert teachers: The difference. In: Impact 10: 32-33.

Planning a literature Scheme of Work

One of the best things to come out of lockdown in terms of work has been the work that has taken place to push literature as part of our Key Stage 4 offering. This year, as part of our Learning Area Improvement Plan, one of our focus points was to increase the incorporation of authentic target language materials within lessons. Not just that, we wanted to incorporate the skills of literature study and film study that students experience at Key Stage 5 in Key Stages 4 and 3 to widen our curriculum offering. This desire to push authentic materials and exposure to skills needed at A Level led to the creation of two literature units of study for Year 9 covering both of our main taught languages of French and Spanish. This blog will explain some of the considerations and some of the theory behind my planning of the Spanish module and that my colleague took during the planning process in order to create a bank of lessons ready for delivery.

Selecting the right books

The main factor on deciding which texts we would pick to centre our new literature module upon was the accessibility to students. We wanted something somewhat challenging, but that reinforced the vocabulary that is covered during the GCSE course. 

The second factor that helped inform our decision was our desire to show that the Hispanic and Francophone worlds don’t just include the countries of Spain and France respectively; there’s a lot more to them. The latest offerings of textbooks available for use are getting better; but they still seem to centre on France and Spain. We wanted this to change, especially with our desire to constantly refine our curriculum offering to be inclusive. For French, we turned to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, to centre on Algeria and for Spanish, a colleague suggested Guantanameras by Dolores Soler-Espiauba.

The L’Étranger scheme of work showing some of the context we decided to include prior to reading the book.

The choice of books allowed us to include themes that can often go unexplored at GCSE-level language study, such as the Cuban Revolution, the separation of families caused by the fallout of the revolution and, in the case of L’Étranger, absurdism. The result – a more interesting cultural offering we could bring to the table to our students, whilst reinforcing the learning taking place during the GCSE course. 

The Guantanameras Scheme of Work – some of the content I chose to include prior to reading the text.

Introducing the setting

For students living in inner-city London, Algeria and Cuba aren’t the easiest of places for them to imagine. Before launching into a scene set in José Martí’s Terminal 4 in La Habana, which I can testify first hand is an eye-opening experience stepping out to 1950s taxis, or looking at life in Cuban flats, it was important that I took the steps to look at why Cuba is so different and to sow the seeds to the story that was to come.

GCSE AQA Photocard-style activity included – encapsulating the skills needed for the GCSE as well as engaging with life of Cuba.

To do this, I chose to use photographs in GCSE-style photocard activities. The photographs that tend to appear in the GCSE photos are very generic. In one from one exam board, it even depicts a family on holiday in the United States of America in New York City – promoting very little of the Hispanic world. Using real photographs from Cuba not only promoted the GCSE skill of describing a photo, but also gave the students a real feeling for what life is like in Cuba. 

Furthermore, I picked accessible articles to get students to understand what the island of Cuba was like, with its collection of cayos and islotes, before coupling it with a map of the island. This enabled us to look at things such as what an archipelago is, promoting cross-curricular links, as well as helping to visualise what the country is like and pinpoint locations from the book. 

Map included to help students understand the geography of Cuba

Therefore on planning a literary scheme of work, if the geography and the setting are not in place, students will not be able to construct as good of a mental image of the setting of the book compared to if they had been introduced, through images, to the location of the key events.

Historical and social context

No book can ever be truly understood if the historical and social context is not explored prior to, and during, reading of the novel. 

In Guantanameras, in order to understand the story of the process of two sisters having been separated due to a division in family loyalties to the rule of Fidel Castro, it is essential to explore the Cuban Revolution itself, as well as the consequences. For one sister to end up in Miami, the theme of emigration and push factors from Cuba has to be considered. To do this, again, I turned to pictures of Cubans on a raft trying desperately to cross to the USA to make the struggle hit home and to try and build empathy in the students. But not everyone wants to leave, so a careful balance of push and pull factors was given and students asked to consider what they would do to get them to put themselves in the situation as much as possible.

Using pictures to try and get students to empathise with the fall out of the Cuban Revolution

The colonisation of Cuba is a non-negotiable to be able to understand the text and to help the reader understand the identity of the two protagonists. To delve into this idea, we explored the reasons behind the colonisation of Cuba and the desire of the Spaniards to exploit the natural resources of the island by using slaves shipped over from Africa to help them achieve this, following the obliteration of the first-generation inhabitants of Cuba. The understanding of this part of history is essential in order to understand the heritage of the protagonists, therefore it has to be taught to create the understanding amongst students.

Had I not included these two key pieces of social and historical context, the ability to truly understand the text on a meaning deeper than just piecing together the words that make the text up would not happen. Therefore, always put as much effort, if not more, into planning the lessons on historical and social context behind the texts. 

Picking extracts to use

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough time in the curriculum to be able to fully finish either of the books we have picked to use, so some tactical choices had to be made of which sections I was going to use. The first consideration was the accessibility of the text and the potential to dig into previous learning from GCSE study. The second consideration was the storyline itself and its ability to lead us in expanding cultural knowledge. Finally, I wanted students to be able to construct a mental picture for themselves of what Cuban life is like for themselves. One example from Guantanameras sees the sisters being described with a lot of adjectives describing appearance – perfect opportunity to: 1) revise prior learning and to 2) help students get a mental picture of what is happening in the book by asking them to draw the two sisters and create a character in their heads.

Planning activities based on reading strategies

Reading can be bottom-up (focusing on individual sounds and words) or top-down (looking at context, history). Before we can apply social context and extract, skim or extract facts or quotes (using top-down strategies), students need to understand what each word and sentence means by using bottom-up strategies, such as intensive reading. To do this, we looked at starting each lesson with an episode of pre-teaching vocabulary as the main way to give students knowledge. This could be done by giving students a list of words to find in the text, doing a vocabulary match up or using strategies to work out unknown vocabulary, such as using morphology, etymology etc. 

Bottom-up and top-down reading

After securing understanding, myself and my colleague looked at putting in top-down strategies to extract information, to skim read or to apply knowledge of cultural context or historical context to the text. Some of the activities we used included drawing key characters, answering questions in the target language based on the text and true/false/not mentioned. These also tied in with our mission to reinforce GCSE exam skills that we didn’t want to let slip at any point.

Moving forward

In the Learning Area, we foster the spirit of sharing resources, with an emphasis on adapting for individual classes. I very much look forward to seeing how the original resources are adapted, what new parts of the books may be added by staff and how challenge might be ramped up or what extra scaffolds might be put in place. But what I am exceptionally proud of is how we now have a solid literary and authentic resource offering for our students in Key Stage 4 that introduces the skills needed for A Level languages study.

Ten tips for trainee teachers on your first week

Stepping into a classroom with 32 youths, who have no idea of who you are or what you are about and stand for can be daunting. As a training co-ordinator in a comprehensive secondary school, these are my top 10 tips to get your first placement teaching experience off to the best start – from how you display yourself on placement to how to conduct your first few lessons.

Portraying yourself:

1. First impressions count

I think most trainers and professional tutors will agree that one of the likely reasons that trainees are welcomed into schools is for recruitment purposes. I am constantly looking out for who I believe would fit well in our school, and to that extent always treat each placement as an interview experience. Always set out to make the right impression and to be taken seriously as a teacher, and not just as a student teacher. Formality in the first few weeks can go a long way; being professional in the conversations that you have with your mentor and other colleagues around the school. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to be stern and serious – smile, be friendly and approachable, 100% – but avoid getting dragged into any potential unprofessional conversations, especially with other trainee teachers and other members of staff. This could ultimately cost you in terms of being employed by the school or receiving a good reference. 

2. Be organised

One of the things trainee teachers can find hard is just how organised school life is. A school is a place where students come to learn, but underpinning that learning are a multitude of systems; from duties to safeguarding. Even the art of teaching could be considered as a system! Create yourself a comprehensive timetable – firstly inserting your lessons, then your all-important mentor meeting slot and any duties you have.  Ensure you put room numbers and locations on, so that you know exactly where you are going to, and if you are unsure, ask. Ensure you know when your meetings are and that you are always on time for any meetings. In most schools, you will soon come to realise that teaching staff are very time poor. Being late to meetings or unreliable can cause friction between yourself and that staff member, leading to a possible deterioration of a relationship which could have been completely avoidable. One final tip for organisation is to try and get your resources planned and ready the day before so that you can get them printed off. This can take away the last-minute panic of having forgotten a sheet or a resource that you might need.

Your first classroom experiences:

3. Entry is everything

The threshold of a classroom is the dividing line between the corridor and the classroom space that is now your space. Setting the right tone at the door is essential. Doug Lemov in his book Teach Like a Champion refers this moment as ‘Threshold’. Ensure you stand on the physical dividing line between your classroom and the corridor, giving off a stance of confidence. Stand straight, feet apart so you look naturally comfortable as well and portray confidence. Receive the students calmly, greeting them as they pass you. Take the opportunity to iron out any uniform issues, such as ties, top buttons and shirts hanging out before they step into the classroom, so you don’t need to tackle these in front of the whole class, giving the student a potential audience to undermine you. It will also strike a tone that you know what to look out for in terms of enforcing the rules and setting your standards high. The tricky part comes when you have to also police those inside the classroom. Position yourself in a location that gives you vantage of the students inside the room, as well as those approaching you to save you having to turn around. Ensure to momentarily scan the room and make eye contact with those already inside the room to let them know in spite of the fact that you are also on the door, you are also looking to ensure impeccable standards from those who have crossed the threshold. Ensure that all equipment, including the all-essential planner, is out in front of students. Remind them to do this as this is essential should something go wrong later on in the lesson. You being calm at this crucial point in a lesson, in spite of the fact you probably haven’t got your routines 100% down yet, can often create a sense of calm amongst students. 

4. Know your behaviour policy and don’t be afraid to apply it

A lot of people believe behaviour policy is there so students know how to conduct themselves and the consequences should they not abide by it; but I would argue an even more important function of the behaviour policy is that it is there to support you in dealing with instances of bad behaviour. By not applying the behaviour policy fairly and consistently, staff are undermining those that do, by opening staff who apply it by the book to instances of: “But Sir lets us drink in class” or even worse, students thinking that they can pick and choose which detentions they can go to because one seemed fairer than the other. You have a duty to uphold the behaviour management policy and you should strive to do so. The students will know the policy better than you, and how to play it, therefore know it inside out and consult help from your mentor should you find yourself in any tricky situations. You deserve as much respect as the regular class teacher and this needs to be addressed should you not receive that same level of respect.

5. Avoid setting students up for a fail

When a consequence is issued for a misdemeanour, this should be the line in the sand before moving on with the lesson. So many times, our actions in the heat of the moment can set students up for a fail. In most schools, in these instances, it will be the student that comes out worse and the staff member will simply be left feeling wound up – which is not good for your wellbeing. If you need to issue a sanction, firstly, stay calm. If you get wound up and the student does, it will draw attention to both of you. The student will probably end up with a more severe sanction and you will be left looking defeated.

If you need to issue a consequence or to remove a student, do it discretely. Firstly, by having planners out at the beginning of the lesson, before they even sit down, means that you are not opening up to a discussion, and a potential confrontation, should you need to write in it. 

Secondly, rather than asking for a planner; take it. By asking for a planner, you are potentially opening up the consequence for discussion. Should you be asked why, state you will discuss it at the end and that now is not the right moment. 

Finally, in the case you should need to get a student to leave your room, go up to the student and ask them in a very quiet tone to leave your classroom. Do not make a scene as again, this could lead to you looking defeated and the student receiving an even bigger consequence for being rude.

6. Pack away sitting down

Having a view of all of your students can help you see exactly what is going on and can help you address any misdemeanours immediately. Some people aren’t as tall as me, but one of the easiest ways to make sure you get a calm finish to the end of the lesson and retain control is by asking students to pack away sitting down and to remain in their seats. Do this standing in a central ‘power position’ in your classroom, focusing purely on monitoring the process of packing away. Again, students will know that you are monitoring their exact moves and will ensure that you are seen as being the figure in control of the room. Once this is done, dismiss one row at a time, standing at the same position you were when they entered to ensure that they leave in a calm and controlled fashion.

Planning tips

7. Look at the resources of others in the department

Training year is so interesting because you will be exposed to schools that work in a multitude of ways and it should be your chance to think about what works for you and what kind of school/department you would like to work in. Some schools script lessons, others work from booklets; some work from PowerPoints and textbooks, and some expect no use of textbooks at all. In the latter two categories you will need to resource your lessons, which can be daunting. The important thing to remember is that people will have taught the same explanation, the same content and the same groups before. Look at their planning and how they set up their lessons – as they will have done it for a reason. The golden rule is to use other resources to inform your own resource making, so that you can develop resources in the future should you need them. Should you go and teach someone else’s resource without adapting it, potentially it could be scaffolded in a way which would still be too complicated for your class to understand the concept – such as key vocabulary missing from a glossary that your class may not understand and prevent access to a text. Always look over and adapt to ensure students can access. 

8. Plan backwards

One essential book that I really advocate is Peps Mccrea’s Lean Lesson Planning. Peps Mccrea sets out his Habits; one of which is planning back from your end point. This will help keep your lesson focussed and orientated towards the endpoint, without going off on a tangent. It will also ensure you look at the purpose of each activity, to see if it fits with your desired goal at the end. This short read is an essential for all new and recently qualified teachers. 

Receiving feedback

9. Ask what the feedback point you were given looks like

A lot of time, feedback can be – you did this, you didn’t do that, you missed this, you need to work on this. It turns out into a case of missed opportunities and sometimes quite abstract ideas, such as something as general as “you need to work on your presence”. This leaves you without a tangible action. Make sure to ask, “What would you suggest?”, “What could I do to develop this?’ or, “What does that look like?”. This will help you get a point that you need to focus on in order to improve in that area. If you can, in your meeting, ask your mentor if you can practice that point in a deliberate practice episode. This can really help you refine your explanation; refine how you carry yourself or help you change your plan before you get into the classroom and anticipate any problems. 

10. Be receptive to the feedback

I can almost guarantee that you will never have received as much feedback in your life. This can feel overwhelming. Be receptive to it and do not think you are doing a bad job. Sometimes you may feel like you’re being attacked – and it’s definitely most probably not an attack, rather it’s a new experience that you are not yet used to. Always frame it in the context of if you don’t get the feedback, you will never improve. 

By the same token, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Most mentors are great in identifying two or three main improvements that will have the highest impact for you. If they don’t, it’s down to you. Have a look and consider the impact that they could have in your practice and focus on these before moving on. This will make progress feel manageable to you and will see you take ownership of your progress.

Finally: if you have issues, don’t be afraid to speak up. Speak to your Professional Tutor, your trainer or your contact at your provider. At the end of the day, you have paid the fees, you deserve to receive what you have paid for, which is high-quality training to set you up for your future career. 

Applying (some of) the 7 strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary in the MFL classroom

I was lucky enough to see Alex Quigley present for our Academy a couple of years ago now, and there was something in his presentation that just made perfect sense to me as an MFL teacher. I was still fairly new at the Academy where I now work, and still felt time pressures of hurtling full speed through a textbook to cover the then new AQA Spanish spec in two years. A year later, we turned to teaching the GCSE course from Year 9, allowing us more time to really delve deep into the content and skills required for the GCSE. However, even having taught a three-year GCSE course, rather than the two-year course, we still had a huge deficit in reading skills. Something had to be done. Coupled with the Covid crisis and the need to create the ‘recovery curriculum’- I feel like the strategies Quigley presents are so beneficial to expanding the lexicon of our students when applied in the classroom – hopefully improving scores on the reading exam and expanding student knowledge at a greater rate. In this blog, I will look at four strategies that are easily applied to the MFL classroom, with examples, that I believe are arguably more useful than any ‘recovery curriculum’.

Before we start exploring…

Like a lot of MFL teachers out there, I started out in the period of activities, fun and progress in the lesson being the main measures of how much learning was taking place. No diversions were permitted – if this were to happen, that would inevitably result in a poorly-graded observation. For these strategies to work, it has taken me to move schools and rid myself of that mentality through the help of an amazing faculty and teaching and learning team; and to accept that delving deep into the nuts and bolts of a text/transcript is incredibly beneficial in terms of building resilience and reading ability. For these strategies to work, I really believe that this notion of deep learning has to be adapted and that we have to ‘forgive ourselves’ for offering students opportunities to explore the building blocks of words and related vocabulary. At the end of the day, as per the book, I want my students to be coleccionistas de palabras.

Four strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary in the classroom

Quigley outlines seven strategies of improving student ability to explore unfamiliar vocabulary in the classroom. They are looking at: word parts (morphology); word families; word histories (etymology); spelling (orthography); words with multiple meanings; synonyms and antonyms, as well as connecting to context. The four I’ve chosen to look at are: morphology, word families, etymology and looking at context.

Strategy #1: Morphology (word parts)

Morphology is all about looking for units inside of full words that add individual meaning to a word. An example in English being contraflow. In this word, we can separate the verb to flow and the prefix contra. From the verb to flow, we get that the word is about movement; but coupled with the prefix contra, we have the added meaning of moving against something – going against the normal flow of traffic.

What is useful about morphology is that, especially in a lot of languages, you can easily derive several verbs from the original verb you give. What is also extremely beneficial is that you can instruct students that these verbs, especially if the original verb, such as decir, conjugates in an irregular way, that the derived verbs will also follow that conjugation pattern. An example from the verb decir in Spanish below:

Using morphology to give related verbs

This can be very useful, especially with A Level, when students are regularly faced with more challenging texts and a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary in their first novel in the target language. Here is an example that I have used when exploring Ramón J. Sender’s Réquiem por un campesino español:

To assist when using morphology in the classroom, ask students to look for words that they know within a word. Then ask them to look for any prefixes that could be attached to the beginning of the word they already know and ask what sense it brings to the new word. Students will often give a poor translation, but it demonstrates they have the sense of the word. For instance, for camposanto, they will often say sacred land or holy land. At this point, it is down to us as teachers to ask: “So, what could ‘holy land‘ be in the context of this book. This will often guide students to the right answer.

Strategy #2: Word families

For word families to be successful, it’s about looking at suffixes, and what they tell us about what group of words they belong to. A classic example from French might be ‘-erie’ – which can often indicate that a word is a shop. Here is a list of common suffixes (by no means exhaustive) that I provide students with in Spanish. There is always going to be the odd exception, but as a rule of thumb, it works well:

A common list of suffixes I provide my students with to aid with decoding

When it comes to unpicking vocabulary in the classroom, I ask students to look for the principal unit of meaning, and then ask students to couple with what suffix usually means. Here’s an example I have used in a literary text:

What I also believe is incredibly important, and something I would never pause to do in my early career is to provide similar words that come from the same word. A great one that often works is asking students to give or to define the related verb after providing a noun or adjective, such as having given students mejor (better), taking the time to write mejorar on the whiteboard and asking students: “now we know mejor means better; what could mejorar mean? What clues have we got?” At this point, I would expect a student to elicit that it is an verb (based from the -ar ending), then expect them to identify it is an infinitive, before then asking them to sandwich the ‘better’ meaning of mejor and the ‘to’ element from the infinitive component of the word to get the resultant to better/improve meaning. I think this is an incredibly easy way to get students to view words in a different way and to expand their vocabulary, whilst simultaneously helping to develop decoding strategies.

Stopping to point out related words

Strategy #3: Etymology (word history)

One of the reasons I love etymology is that I think it is an easy way to transfer over our geeky love of words. a classic example I use in Spanish is where the ‘tricky’ word for left izquierda came from:

Explaining the etymology of ‘izquierda’

The Latin, from which Spanish originated, had sinistra for the left hand. In the past, the devil was thought to live on the left-hand shoulder, and people did not want to call the devil or make reference to the devil, for this reason many languages borrowed words from other languages to replace evolutions of the word sinistra. The Spaniards turned to the Basque word for left, and thus izquierda was born:

Taken from the Real Academia Española

Stories such as this, Quigley suggests, adds an element of meaning to the word to help make it memorable.

Strategy #4: Connecting to context

Connecting to context is something that students seem to do less than they ought to, and something if they used more readily as a skill, would help them make much more informed and reasoned guesses at the meaning of new vocabulary. Below is an example of how to use when dealing with Dolores-Soler Espiauba’s Guantanameras:

In this sentence, students are presented with avión – arguably a commonly-used noun in classrooms across the country; however, the verb to land aterriza appears a lot less frequently. Students often struggle to decode this word and work out its meaning. Using context can aid. Firstly: ask students to identify what they know (el avión, el aeropuerto and the preposition en). In my experience, students often don’t use cues to meaning, such as capital letters, to identify the meaning of a word – in this case José Martí. As is such, we must make it a part of our practice to guide students to identify that capital letters denote proper nouns – i.e. specific places or people. In this case, students will work out that José Martí is the airpot. This builds up context to the verb aterrizar. The next thing to do is to sum up the clues for the students, almost in a ‘Through the Key Hole’ fashion, before asking students: “What do aeroplanes do in/at/on airports?” This often leads to reasoned guesses of taking off or landing.

A final example, used with la madrina in Réquiem por un campesino español can be seen below:

Finally:

These are not all of the 7 strategies, but are the ones that I presented on at TM MFL Icons. A quick list of the other strategies in practice can be found below:

Further reading:

For more information from Alex himself, go to: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/

For my video for students on using the strategies during lockdown, go to:

Breathing space and thinking time – tips on creating the space and time to self-reflect during the day

We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience” (John Dewey).

This quote from Dewey resonates with me. How many things do we do every day on autopilot in the classroom, that if we looked back upon with a critical eye, we would change? A lot I would say from experience. From explanations to difficult conversations, there’s been many a time, especially when dealing with situations that require decisive action or that are of high emotion, that after I have taken action, I haven’t properly taken the time out to reflect later on in the day. We are all regularly quite emotionally and physically tired at the end of the working day after doing our best for the children in front of us; but this act of self-reflection is so important, especially when dealing with charged situations. I’d like to think that having previously reflected on a similar situation to the one I have faced with earlier in the day, I would over time be more likely to take the right action in a future recurrence. One of the sad things I feel is that, sometimes, taking time out during the school day to self-reflect can feel like you’re wasting time. I’ve been there. However, those minutes of self-reflection and question asking are vital to improve our classroom practice and professional conduct. Here are some of my ways to take time out to self-reflect through the day.

  1. Locate where the quiet places are in your school

In order to self-reflect, a quiet, calm space is essential. At my first school, I used to head to the smaller playground picnic benches during lesson time. In my current school, I head to the garden space. There are also several classrooms that are regularly only used for Sixth Form lessons so can often be found completely empty. Take the time during your first weeks when wandering around your school to suss out the quiet spots and use them.

  1. Go for a wander

Sometimes, fresh air and going for a wander can help get into the right frame of mind for reflection. Not just that, if you have an office or a classroom and someone wants to speak to you, their initial search will often lead them to try and find you in your natural habitat. Going for a wander not only will allow you to get some air; but will help you avoid any unwanted interruptions whilst you consider issues that you want to reflect on.

  1. If you have a photocopying room as well as printing machines on the corridor – go to the photocopying room and don’t do it on the corridor.

From experience, colleagues tend to not like to travel far to release printing. I, however, do. Not only do the photocopiers in the photocopying room tend to be faster and less likely to have a queue than those on corridors, you also find that you are less likely to bump into other members of staff. For some unknown reason in the schools I’ve worked at, the photocopying room often seems to be at the complete opposite end to school to where most people work. Running off a set of booklets during the day makes me feel like I’m doing something productive (I gain a resource that I need for future lessons) whilst being sufficiently out-of-the-way and alone in order to take some time out for me to think.

  1. Take your things to the library.

If your school has a library, it can often be a haven of books and tranquillity, with little corners in which you can quietly plan or mark. Most of my marking gets done in the library when I need to focus – especially with A Level essays. But what’s also nice about the library is it is the perfect setting in order to sit down and do some thinking and often, especially during lesson time, as it can sometimes be completely vacant.

  1. Tea/coffee/beverage time is important.

Sometimes, the physical trip to the kitchen to fill up the kettle, then boil the water in it, followed by pouring the water on top of the teabag (Yorkshire Tea, if you must know!), waiting for it to properly brew then adding the milk gives me 6 minutes of switch-off time after a lesson. It might not seem much time at all; however, it can sometimes be enough to take my mind off the situation, enjoy the taste of a good brew and to calm down by letting my adrenaline levels drop to a lower level so I can think in a clearer way.

Finally:

You can make the space, find the quiet spots and believe that self-reflection is not a waste of time – but somehow it still can feel like you’re not getting anywhere. In this case, do not be afraid to enlist the help of others to help you reflect, through coaching. I know when you’re new at a school, or an NQT/ITT, building up the trust to confide in someone that they are not going to judge you; rather support you, is a difficult thing to do. I started my first school and very much kept my head down and didn’t allow myself to confide in anyone until at least the end of my second term. But I knew I had my mentor and my Head of Department who would take that time out to ask me non-judgemental questions and to coach me – believing I had the answer myself and just needed to arrive at that point. The same can be very much said about my current school and having this kind of relationship is a very special thing that ought to be greatly valued – and probably the reason I would find it very hard to move on from my current school.

The following quote from Jamie Thom in his article: The first five years of teaching: motivation, CPD and retention (found here: http://www.slowteaching.co.uk/2019/05/24/first-five-years-teaching-motivation-cpd-retention/) really stood out to me:

We all feel more motivated and encouraged when we feel we have someone we can speak to and be supported by. All my interactions with teachers highlighted just how much they want to continue to want to learn and improve what they are doing in the classroom, they just need to be given the time and breathing space to do it. (Jamie Thom).

If you’ve found the time and breathing space to do the self-reflection are finding it difficult to do on your own, make sure to reach out to find someone to help you do it. It’ll pay dividends in your levels of happiness and motivation. Ask if there’s coaching available at your school. It has helped me through some of the most difficult times that self-reflection on my own didn’t help me with and will result in you feeling more confident, valued and will help with your wellbeing in school.

Turning to September – my attempts to streamline.

There’s one thing that has been a constant throughout this lockdown – uncertainty. Uncertainty sometimes can cause panic at its worst, and uneasiness at its best. Moving into September, I want to create some certainties for my students. To do this, I am going to look at the efficiency everything I do. I want to attempt to streamline the Y11 curriculum, refine my own subject knowledge to have to-the-point and clear explanations for exam skills, and create a predictable lesson structure, that allows for recap, incremental knowledge gains and creating connections – so as to make best use of time within the classroom. All of this, however, would be of waste if I were not to couple it with the promotion of self-belief in the classroom in order to try and rid any feeling of being at a disadvantage because of school closure. One thing I am definitely not prepared to do is rewrite the whole scheme of work for Y11 for just one year’s worth of use.

The steps I am going to pursue roughly follow the following order:

STEP 1Revisit GCSE/A Level Specifications and analyse requirements for each question in speaking/writing exams.

STEP 2Deduce what structures I can teach that students can apply in both the writing and speaking exams to access higher band marks without an increase of effort because having to fill in gaps of knowledge.

STEP 3Cut back on content in a way which would not be to the detriment of the students.

STEP 4 – Refine my typical lesson structure to guarantee a diet of revisiting knowledge, building and reinforcing schema and apply this to the exam-style questions.

STEP 5 – Demand the highest quality of work and empower students to believe that can, and will, achieve greatness in MFL.


STEP 1 – Revisiting GCSE/A Level Specifications to look at the individual requirements for each examination.

This is something I do regularly throughout the year, but for individual papers at points that are appropriate – such as just before a department standardisation or moderation of a specific paper. My thinking is that knowing the specification, and how it is examined, is even more important now – not for standardisation purposes; rather for streamlining for students upon their return.

In the past, my students would have had a lot more direct input from myself on how to tackle the different questions on the writing paper or sections of the speaking exam in the classroom, with specific guided practice accompanied by my live interventions as they worked. I think giving feedback immediately, rendering it relevant to the student at that specific moment, is so important to help change thinking. This has been very difficult to do during lockdown. Yes, I have created videos to aid metacognition for exams as an input, but I haven’t been able to hover over students as they work and check that my input has registered so that they know exactly what they need to put into their answers to ensure they fulfil the assessment criteria.

This lack of on-the-spot intervention, coupled with not having moderated or standardised work since February, leaves potential holes in my subject knowledge, as well as that of my students. These are gaps I need to fill in order to secure good exam performance. Going back to the exam criteria is not just a refresher for myself, but also one for my students – who ultimately need to be as well versed as myself in order to reach the best marks possible.

STEP 2 – Identify structures I can teach quickly that students can apply in both the writing and speaking exams to access higher band marks. 

Having looked at the specification and mark schemes, I want to not just fill gaps in my knowledge of the GCSE exams (my area of responsibility); but also analyse what Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 12.17.07structures I can teach that students can apply in both the writing and speaking exams to access higher band marks more easily and be easily fleshed out at A Level. My fear is that certain tenses and moods that I would normally have time to teach thoroughly during the year, such as the present and imperfect subjunctive moods, I will simply not have enough time to do so with conviction. At the end of the day, unlike the past, present and future time frames, there is nothing on the specification for GCSE that says that the subjunctive mood must be used in order to gain access to the top mark bands. Yes, it can help students to demonstrate variety and complexity; but students don’t need to specifically know its use and its formation.

My plan instead is to create a selection of set phrases, such as impersonal sentences, thatScreenshot 2020-07-01 at 12.17.19.png students can memorise with the verb in the subjunctive already there. Should I have time, or should students continue to A Level, students already have the framework there, and will allow me to flesh out with further uses of the subjunctive and its formation. This, I am hoping, will allow me to streamline for the immediate, and provides the opportunity for deeper understanding to happen later on in their study of the language. Out of this has come the ‘Aiming for the back of the net’ booklet, which contains these very structures for students to memorise and apply in a way that won’t render their response irrelevant.

STEP 3 Cut back on content in a way which would not be to the detriment of the students.

The example of not teaching the subjunctive explicitly alludes to this point. I need to look at the content left to be taught and decide on what content could possibly be cut down in a way which would not be to the detriment of the students. To help me do this, I need to think about what isn’t an explicit requirement in the specification to reach the top bands of marks, and what may take a while to gain understanding. The subjunctive exemplifies this quite nicely. I am most likely not going to have time to teach the multitude of uses it has, cover the remaining content and practise exam skills. What is arguably a better investment of time is ensuring that my students are well versed in the preterite, imperfect and perfect tenses; as well as the present and near and simple future tenses – so that they can easily tick the boxes for quality of language for the 90-word essay; as well as hitting the requirement to meet all three time frames in the general conversation. They also should have enough variety of tenses (contrasting the imperfect and preterite tenses in the past) in order to show variety and some elements of complexity, aided by the memorised subjunctive phrases.

But cutting content doesn’t just mean cutting and compromising on quality. There will possibly be a lot more vocabulary than normal that I won’t be able to teach. This worrie

Screenshot 2020-07-01 at 12.28.14

Quigley’s 7 Strategies for exploring unfamiliar vocabulary. Available at: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/ 

s me. However, I need to look at ways of cutting back but vocabulary that is explicitly taught, but also look at methods of helping students arrive at meaning without necessarily being taught the word. Alex Quigley lays out his 7 Strategies for dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary – and I aim to turn to these as a way of arming my students with techniques that can help them piece together meaning. For instance, looking at the word entreabierto (ajar) – morphology and guiding students to think of the composition of the word would possibly lead them to recognising entre(between) and abierto (open). Run these two meanings together and they have a fighting chance of working out it means half-open or ajar.

As well as turning to the seven strategies, I also want to make a point of exploring vocabulary more openly. If I give a word such as el ahorro (the saving) – I will ask my students: “if el ahorro is a saving, what do you think to save could be?” to see if they can arrive at ahorrar (to save). Hopefully this will get students to think about how to form verbs from nouns, and also give them another item of vocabulary that they can easily relate to the prior item they were given, and separate off the meaning through their grammatical knowledge of -ar being a marker for an infinitive.

In the past, I would do this; but I feel creating a systematic push on the 7 strategies and providing words with a lexical link will help to add to students’ vocabulary efficiently under the pressure of having lost time in the classroom.

STEP 4 –Refine my typical lesson structure to guarantee a diet of revisiting knowledge, building and reinforcing connections and apply this to the exam-style questions.

I often read about cognitive science and use it alongside subject-specific pedagogy in my practice. I feel now, it’s time to really bring it to the forefront of my practice. My students potentially haven’t done thorough retrieval practice in the way in which I would normally expect it to be done, in order to reinforce prior learning. They may not have done it as regularly or for as long as I would like it to be done. If they are not doing this, and not coupling it with new material that I have been introducing remotely, there will definitely be a disconnect in their thinking and potentially a lack of connectedness in their knowledge.

What I want to do is look at my resources, look at opportunities for retrieval practice and skills practice, so that I can potentially shoehorn it into a specific lesson design. This design would encompass regular retrieval practice, exploiting links between prior learning and new learning, an enable me to ensure students have a diet of revisiting knowledge, building and reinforcing connections so that they are able to apply it to exam-style questions.

STEP 5 – Demand the highest quality of work and empower students to believe that can, and will, achieve greatness in MFL.

This for me is the most important step of them all. I could lower my standards following the pandemic, but this is something I do not, under any circumstances, want to do. Instead, I want to empower and encourage students to achieve. If work is substandard – there’s not point in me saying otherwise – it’s not going to help them on their way to produce successful work in their exams at the end of the year. I have the moral duty to be honest with the students; but going about it in a way which is supportive, gives children tangible and actionable ways in which to improve – with the desired result of also providing them with the motivation to do so. It’s also about being there for my students, talking to them if they need me on a one-to-one basis and on a human level; as well as supporting when necessary. Students know if I am in my office, they can come past and speak to me at any point and I will make time for them. This is going to be more important than ever next year and they will hear that message from me every single lesson.

My closing thoughts:

Be under no illusion that I am willing, or am prepared, to rewrite the full Year 11 curriculum for the sake of one year. Also be under no illusion that I am prepared to lower my standards as a way to heal from this pandemiic. Rather, for us to heal, we need to maintain high expectations, but in a way that allows for conversations to take place where needed to help spur on students on a human level and individual basis. I hope these steps will help me to make quick wins – meeting the requirements of the GCSE exams, reduce time and at the same time, lay foundations that can easily be fleshed out and built on at A Level. Only time will tell if it will work, but it’s a start.

Quigley, A. 07/04/2018. 7 Strategies to explore unfamiliar vocabulary. As found at: https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/04/7-strategies-to-explore-unfamiliar-vocabulary/

 

Nobody puts the scheme of work in the corner

Schemes of work have often been something I’ve glanced over at the beginning of the academic year and then shoved in a drawer, knowing that so long as I was covering the textbook content, I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. So much work gets ploughed into them, but to what avail? During my time as Key Stage 4 lead, I’ve been on a mission to make sure that my hours of typing out and formatting of my schemes of work does not get shoved into cupboard, never to be seen until the next summer clear out. What I didn’t realise was that more than just a change in formatting and colour choice was needed… Here’s my mission so far to put the scheme of work back at the heart of planning.

Getting to the holy grail – an interactive scheme of work that is the go-to for all questions and promotes sharing of resources

If I wanted people to use it, my first thought was that there were several needs that it needed to cater for.

  1. It needed to readily accessible and easy to consult – i.e. available on the shared area in an area for all to access.
  2. It needed to promote sharing of resources and ideas, as well as aid with saving time in producing resources.
  3. It needed to increase teacher awareness of upcoming assessments – what exam paper was being tested and where resources, including mark schemes were located.
  4. It needed to be the ‘go-to’ crib sheet for the faculty.

To get to the place where want it to be, there was a lot of work that needed to be done – more than I first thought. Here are the steps I took.

Stage 1: Rearranging the IT architectureScreenshot 2020-06-18 at 17.08.10

If I were to get people to peruse other people’s resources in order to save time, and also to aid their explanation and delivery, I needed to make them easily accessible. My idea was to create hyperlinks for each unit in the scheme of work. But before I could create the hyperlinks, I had to create an area to link to, where everyone’s initials were located, so that this was possible. To do this, I rearranged the shared area. The main folders replicated the modules of study (ours align with the Viva/Studio/Stimmt textbooks), which then divided up into textbook unit. In each textbook unit folder, I created a folder for each teacher, in which they could paste their lessons. Once each unit folder was created, this enabled hyperlinks to be created that would show staff each other’s folders for the resources for that unit – enabling easy browsing.

The same process was put place for the assessments, so that the filing order enabled for useful hyperlinking to take place.

Step 2: Figure out what was non-negotiable in the scheme of work and fit it in

If the scheme of work were to take centre stage as a crib sheet for the department, it had to be useful. It had to reflect what we believe led to our results for the past two years – skills practise coupled with a secure foundation in grammar, brought together with metacognition and retrieval practise. For this reason, I included skills and grammar asScreenshot 2020-06-18 at 17.18.18central columns for the original schemes of work I created – to show what was central to the unit. Writing to bullet points is open-ended, I understand, but it gives teachers autonomy. For instance, writing to bullet points to answer the 90-word question requires use of 3 different time frames; however, for the 150-words, there is no stipulation of how many time frames to meet. This is where teachers, I believe, need autonomy. As much as I observe the faculty, which I do on a very frequent basis, they will always know the strengths and weaknesses of their class to a finer nuance than I will.

Finally, two areas we acknowledged as a faculty during a curriculum review meeting that we needed to push were: exploiting authentic resources as much as we could; and Screenshot 2020-06-18 at 17.17.16, pushing careers as much as we could. This needed to feed directly into the new schemes of work. How did I aim to address this when editing the SoW for 2020-2021? Create separate resource hyperlinks where staff can access authentic resources that other colleagues have made, and by creating a specific careers column in the design of the scheme of work.

Step 3: Specify assessments, when they are and where the resources are

Before I redesigned the schemes of work, I created a scheme of assessment document. Assessments, as a Head of Key Stage, was always something I dreaded. Putting in enough copies for 3 whole cohorts of students (Key Stage 4), as well as copies of each mark scheme and transcript for each member of our 16-strong team was a logistical nightmare. This spurred on the idea of using hyperlinks to catalyse increasing the usability of the scheme of work. Before the scheme of assessment document, staff found it more difficult to really plan for when each assessment was going to take place, being alerted a few weeks prior to it taking place rather than from the very beginning of the year, and when to teach the relevant exam technique, which sometimes resulted in students not demonstrating their true colours. A prime example of how not priming for the assessment could lead to this is that if a member of staff prepared students for a writing photocard, whereby students only have to write 4 very short sentence about a photograph (AQA MFL GCSE exams), but they actually received a speaking photocard (in which students have 4 additional questions to answer, give opinions and justify opinions, as well as describe the photograph) – they would be not set up optimally to do well in this assessment. Having every half-term’s assessments detailed enabled for this planning to take place. Mark schemes and examiner reports being readily available also helped teachers refresh their subject knowledge of how the marks are allocated and what they need to be looking for when marking, hence helping them to improve their subject knowledge.

But having this information on a document separate to the scheme of work meant staff having to cross reference two documents, rather than just one. So, the idea was taken to include these on the scheme of work, as well as the scheme of assessment, so that everything was centralised.

Step 4: Hand over time for staff to populate folders

Staff would probably have met with resistance if they weren’t granted some time to move their resources into the new shared area architecture, so to mitigate this, time was handed over to allow staff just to do that.

The road ahead

I am happy with the architecture of the IT system, which is set up to promote sharing. Previously, before the change, ideas were shared in briefings every other week, or through emailing the MFL group – which was done intermittently.  When wandering around classrooms going about my business, it was evident that people were borrowing other people’s activities, explanations and elements of practice. This was before the release of the updated schemes of work that I have created – so in my eyes, step 1 had worked, even before including hyperlinks into the schemes of work.

What I wasn’t as successful at doing, and most of it was my fault, was to make it my default answer if a staff member came to me with a question that could be resolved by engaging with the new, interactive schemes of work. I was hesitant to push the new version out, maybe because it was an item that, due to other pressures, failed to rise to the top of my agenda in my line management meetings. Thankfully, lockdown has given me time to process and re-evaluate, and ultimately make this my top priority from September. The message from the word go will be to consult the SoWs – placing emphasis on these.

Creating a culture of belief and confidence in the classroom

“Confidence and self belief” – in every single staff briefing in our Learning Area I have had since I started at my current school, the aforementioned phrase has floated up on the briefing PowerPoint with regards to Year 11. It was one of those messages for two years I took as “Yeah, right. They just need a kick up the metaphorical to get them to work harder.” That was until this year, when I think I have really come to understand what a culture of belief and confidence looks like.

“…As educators, it is our responsibility to create a context in which a growth mindset can flourish.” Dweck 2016

Some people will look at the theory of the Growth Mindset with disdain. I know during those various staff briefings I was doing it myself, thinking: “Really? All they need to do is sit down and spend time doing some proper work.” This was true, perhaps, of the previous Year 11 cohorts I had taught since the start of my career; but the cohort I have got now are nothing like any other cohort I have taken through. This group have a large variety of levels of need: literacy issues, large levels of SEND support and retention problems.

“Oh not everyone can be good at x, don’t worry, you’re good at other things,”

As part of my role as KS4 MFL Lead and Second in Faculty, I sit down and meet with all of  the Year 11 teachers to discuss data – where are the weak points, what strategies have been put in place and what else could we try to secure progress. My meeting is done with my Head of Faculty. All my data was low, very low and I felt honestly like I was failing the students in front of me. But what my HoF said to me was something I had never thought of before – that these students were actually most likely going to be sitting the GCSE exam in Spanish (we enter as many students as we can) and that I have never put a ceiling on what they can do or what they should be able to do in Spanish.  It made me consider – what was it that I was doing in order to not put this ceiling on my students? How was I creating this culture of self confidence and belief that I had simply overlooked and had taken for granted?

Creating the culture 

1. “Praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress”

With the class I have, I knew I had to tread carefully in order to not completely deflate their confidence. I originally thought I could do this in one of two ways: firstly, praise everything – even misconceptions (which would have led to these being embedded in their minds as a correct piece of knowledge); or secondly, I could pitch the work very low so success was guaranteed – but ultimately would not help build this group up to being successful at GCSE-level language study. Instead, I realised that I was doing something differently that almost incorporated the two. Dweck in her interview (2016) states that parents/teachers alike will automatically praise the effort put into a task – even though the outcome might have been unsuccessful. This is where she suggests the Growth Mindset has been misinterpreted – she places the emphasis on praising the effort that led to a successful outcome or, if it goes wrong, the learning process that took place. For instance, rather than saying “no, that’s wrong” – I was saying things such as: “not quite there, but I can see where you’re coming from” or “not quite…” – but rounding it off with an explanation from another student and then getting the first student to resay what the previous student had said in order to correct their misconception. I would also make it a point of revisiting the student with the misconception at some point during the lesson with a similar question to ensure that they had understood. I found this didn’t leave students with misconceptions feeling deflated – but it also allowed me to change their thinking and to ensure misconceptions didn’t become embedded.

2. “Students need to know that if they’re stuck, they don’t need just effort. You don’t want them redoubling their efforts with the same ineffective strategies.”

When I first took over this group, making the work accessible to them was so difficult. I would let them simply struggle then give them the answers to a reading/listening and brush on rapidly to a writing exercise/speaking exercise that I was a lot more confident in making accessible via writing frames or speaking frames. No matter how much more they tried, it wasn’t going to help. The change needed to come from me – through investing time in researching how to make tasks accessible to students of such diverse needs. The first thing I did was plan backwards for every task; not just for the lesson sequence itself. Peps McCrea in the book Lean Lesson Planning (2015) sums this concept up succinctly about putting into place the steps needed to move forward, then reviewing the effectiveness of each step systematically. It made me think about the vocabulary students were going to be exposed to in listenings and readings. It made me think more carefully about pre-exposing students to this vocabulary, and having it on a consistent sheet that I would create for every lesson sequence that students could use as a point of reference throughout the lesson. The result was unprecedented – students were practically using these throughout lessons, found that they were useful for revising vocabulary and students on average increased their listening assessment marks by 8 marks and reading by 7 marks. I was now making my lessons accessible and it was showing in the numbers – and in my students’ confidence.

But pre-exposure wasn’t the only change I made – it was thinking about stopping, dropping my plans and rolling with chalking and talking. It was about not being afraid to put a question on the whiteboard, losing the structure of my PowerPoint with it’s extensions and challenge that comes built in, and simply explaining and sharing my thinking and my metacognitive thinking with the students to pull them out of their sicking point – arming them with a different strategy to approach a question which would increase the confidence with dealing with the task in hand.

3. Relationships, exclusivity and loyalty

One of my Year 11’s said to me the other day: “Sir, have you noticed how we started our after-school sessions before everyone else and now they’re copying from us?” – said with a look of pride on his face. This, for me, symbolised two things: firstly, that they are proud of the work that they are doing and also to be in my class; and secondly, that they knew I was working as hard as I could for them. I think both of these symbolisations boil down to one thing: I have the same high expectations of this group, regardless of numbers, progress and group size, as I have for any other class. Not expecting anything less than what I would of any other Year 11 class; rather putting a few extra steps in place has enabled this. But most of all, they are a collective. They don’t judge each other. They are not afraid to get things wrong and not volunteer answers. They want to ask me: “¿Cómo estás señor?” on the threshold of my classroom. They want to tell me: “Anoche, jugué al fútbol con mis amigos” on the door. They want to ask me: “¿Puedo distribuir los cuadernos?”. I’ve never had this before. Through insistence on high quality work, participation and how to give feedback in a more positive way than saying ‘you’re wrong’; I have created a fantastic working and trusting relationship with this group and loyalty.

4. Teach, review, revisit, test, repeat

Retention, as I have mentioned before, with this group is always going to be their Achilles’ heal. When I teach a concept – they get it. I review it at the end of the learning sequence – they’ve got it. One week later – it’s gone. The above cycle is something I’ve introduced in order to help students retain information. Different activities, such as interleaving through the use of photo card questions, multiple choice testing, mixing themes in 90-word and 40-word tasks has all helped to revisit prior learning so that it is reactivated. For instance – after focussing on the environment for a long time (lots of non-cognates in this topic) – I quizzed the students on some verbs. They were able to tell me, in a very short time, that the verb to unplug was ‘desenchufar’. I was not expecting this. Retaining information is something that has enabled this group to gain confidence. They’ve seen it leads to success in their exams (notable and to them, tangible, improvements) and believe that they can do well later this year through this.

Finally… 

To conclude, Dewck says when addressing the miscomprehension of a growth mindset: “If parents react to their child’s failures as though there is something negative, if they rush in, are anxious, reassure the child, “Oh not everyone can be good at math, don’t worry, you’re good at other things,” the child gets it that no, this is important, and it’s fixed. That child is developing a fixed mindset, even if the parent has a growth mindset. But if the parent reacts to a child’s failure as though it’s something that enhances learning, asking, “Okay, what is this teaching us? Where should we go next? Should we talk to the teacher about how we can learn this better?” that child comes to understand that abilities can be developed.” For me, it’s about unpicking the process, thinking about where our students will make pitfalls, being supportive in correcting students/helping unstick students when they fall into pitfalls and not at any point lowering our expectations so as to put a ceiling on what our students can do.

How praise became a consolation prize.  C Gross-Loh, C Dweck. As found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/ Accessed on 3rd Jan 2020

Lean Lesson Planning: A practical approach to doing less and achieving more in the classroom (High Impact Teaching). McCrea, P. 2015. Published by: pepsmccrea.com