Applying The Variation Theory to MFL

by senorcordero

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