By Sara Davidson
NASBTT Associate Consultant for Secondary Languages
What does independent learning actually mean, especially in languages? Isn’t it a given for a linguist anyway? A linguist who is not prepared to learn their vocabulary outside of the classroom or practise speaking the language when they speak to friends abroad is surely like a musician who doesn’t practise his instrument and they are likely to become frustrated at the lack of progress and ultimately give up. ‘Independent Learning’ has become a buzzword and is something that most teachers are constantly trying to encourage. It is certainly something that we strive for at my school, not just in the Sixth Form, but also from Year 9 upwards, so that we prepare our pupils for university better and also encourage taking enjoyment from learning.
Several years ago we changed our schemes of work in the Modern Languages Department to incorporate more culture lower down and move further away from textbooks, reading short stories and creating schemes of work based around literature and film, especially in Year 9 upwards. We encourage participation in every national language competition going, have given pupils suggested MOOCs to take part in, we have tried producing a language magazine, have poetry reading competitions and participate in UKLO. But is this really independent learning? This, to me, is extension work rather than independent learning, perhaps with the exception of the MOOCs. We have a library full of foreign literature from children’s books through to the great classics, and at one point we had weekly newspapers delivered in all seven of our languages every week, but how often is any of this material read? It is difficult to tell, but I don’t think very often. Pupils have lists of useful websites and logins for various online programmes, but how often do they use them without being told to?
Over the last couple of years, I have been emphasising to my pupils the importance of making German part of their daily routine. One Year 11 group all downloaded the Goethe Institute playlist onto their Spotify accounts and claimed to be regularly listening to the latest songs that are uploaded. They certainly developed a good knowledge of German bands and the latest hits, hopefully some vocabulary was learnt along the way. I always encourage ‘liking’ Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts that are in German but are on topics or people they are interested in reading about. This way German pops up on their newsfeed every day and they can click to the full article. The content has to be motivating and relevant if you are going to attempt to read in a foreign language at that level. They can put games with apps like ‘Words with Friends’ into German, I encourage them to make themselves ‘think’ in German when walking around the town, describing in their heads in German what they see as they walk past it or mentally putting together a summary of their day as they lie in their beds and go to sleep. Taking it a step further would be writing it down in diary form in German. We have discussed many ways of using ‘post-its’ for vocabulary that do not feel like hard work – simply have a list of 10-20 words they have come across that week stuck to their desks that changes every week and which they commit to reading out aloud every evening before they start and after they finish their homework. Many of my pupils have also made use of podcasts like Coffee Break German, Easy German and Slow German (all available in other languages too).
Making small changes like these can be very effective and is the first step towards becoming an independent learner at this level, in my view. I would be interested to hear what you think, and what you do to encourage your linguists to work on their languages independently.
Do Secondary Languages Teachers have the hardest job?
We will all recognise that teaching is a challenging profession, and the current recruitment and retention issues are testament to this. 40,000 working age teachers left the profession last year and the government is about to miss its teacher trainee recruitment target for the second year in a row. Workload is the most cited reason that ex-teachers give for leaving the profession, followed by lack of flexibility and issues around lack of autonomy, as well as pay, of course.
Over the years fellow-linguists have commented that the job of modern language teachers is harder than that of the teachers of any other subject. Although in one sense I would be happy for others (including my pupils) to think that I belong to the group of teachers who has the most difficult job in the school, my initial reaction to this comment has been to deny it and defend my colleagues who teach other subjects, remarking that we cannot know how difficult their job is.
So, what makes the job of the modern languages teacher in particular so testing? These are the reasons that have been put to me:
- The requirement to constantly be ‘entertaining’, lively and energetic with your classes, bringing the language alive and into your classroom;
- The need to be constantly up-to-date with what is happening in the country;
- Teaching grammar to students who hate it;
- The added pressure of speaking as much as possible in the target language. This can create a distance between the class and the teacher if the teacher is inexperienced and be very time-consuming to plan, if done properly;
- Battling against the national trait of disinterest in languages and the constant recruitment drive which goes hand-in-hand with this;
- The difficulty (unfairness?) of getting our pupils the top grades and inconsistency of marking in recent years;
- The extra time required to put in to practice one-to-one with pupils for oral exams and then to conduct them;
- Giving up your holidays to organise and supervise trips abroad;
- GCSE content which has, historically, been dull for 16 year olds (talking about pets, family, hobbies and school when the content of other subjects is so much more stimulating);
So why do we do it?
Who does not want to be an entertaining, lively and energetic teacher? Aren’t we all keen to keep up-to-date? It’s so easy now with social media and adding newspapers to your ‘newsfeeds’ and don’t we all love grammar and finding silly ways to make the rules memorable? We are also in the privileged position of being the teacher who can open young people’s eyes to new cultures, new ways of seeing the world, new ways of expressing themselves. The less we dwell on the negatives and woes of language teachers, the better.
And when you reach that low point six weeks into term, why not consider the value of talking time out from the scheme of work for a couple of lessons for all of your classes and just teaching your classes whatever you find inspiring as a linguist? Do not be afraid to let go (if your school and HoD will allow this, of course!). This will probably inspire them too.
Give me the job of a language teacher any day.