Traditionally, (going back to the days of ‘O’ Levels in the UK system), writing had a very prominent place in language education. How much you could actually say wasn’t so important. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the deciding factor in whether you could be considered good at languages was whether you could write grammatically correct sentences or not. Flash forward to the days of GCSE and the National Curriculum. Speaking now takes on a more important role. In assessment terms, a role as important as writing, reading and listening. At Key Stage 3 this remains the case, but the GCSE in its most recent form now values speaking ahead of listening and reading, and on a par with writing. So although speaking has risen in importance in language learning (in terms of the value it is given in this sort of formal assessment), writing remains at least as important. Unfortunately, there can be a backwash effect of all this on how we go about our teaching. Very often as a Subject Leader I would receive job applications in which the applicant proudly pointed out that they made absolutely sure that ‘all 4 skills are used in every lesson’, as though that were unquestionably a good thing. If probed on this at interview, the answer often ran along the lines of, ‘well, they are assessed in equal measure, so they need equal lesson time’. OFSTED (bless their hearts) are now back on the literacy warpath, so, good though it is, it risks being the single issue again. The irony is, though, that in ‘real life’, speaking is far more important in foreign language use, and in native language development, speaking is developed much earlier and to a far greater level of complexity long before a pen is ever picked up. (The other irony is OFSTED’s slogan, ‘Raising Standards, Improving Lives’ – does anyone feel their life has been improved by OFSTED? I mean, really?).
Every few years things come full circle. Areas of focus of 10 years ago are replaced by new demands for our attention, which in turn are replaced by others. Assessment for learning, target language, new technologies, new assessment criteria, new frameworks, etc, etc, until we come back to where we were 10 years earlier. Literacy is one such area. It would be great if instead of one initiative being replaced by another, things were thought through properly by those who claim to lead at a national level so that things built, and we still felt the gains of what we achieved years ago, but maybe that’s hoping a bit too much.
So, here’s the plan: I want to look at some clarification of our personal aims as languages teachers and then at where writing fits into that. I will argue that holding writing off for quite a while and working very hard on promoting spontaneous talk, especially through classroom routines, develops a stronger, broader grammatical/structural base and is more inclusive of learners, the visual learners, the auditory learners and the kinaesthetic ones. As we go along, we will want to raise pupils’ awareness of salient features of the language they are using in various situations and contexts and later we will make the links with writing. So writing comes later in the process than is usually the case but I think it gets writing in (from my point of view) its proper perspective. Righting writing, you might say.
This is how I kicked off the Righting Writing course in Sheffield recently (and those who attended will find here the activities and materials we didn’t get time to look at), but we will come to the detail of this later on. For now, I’m going to dive into the second part of the course which follows a unit of work through from start to finish. It is a sequence I have used with Year 8 groups (where I have taught in schools with Year 7 entry) and Year 9 (in schools where pupils have come to us at the start of Year 8). The unit lasts a half-term, minus a handful of lessons for other topical things (I usually run this in January, so there is Christmas and New Year to natter about first) and it looks at the topic of healthy living. The end activity is a written one and you may be surprised to see that, if that’s the case, there is comparatively little writing during the course of the unit. That is not an accident. Remember, what I’m trying to do is to improve pupils’ overall linguistic competence first and then make the links with writing later. This has always produced a much better result for me in both speaking and writing.
I’ve always favoured spending half a term on a topic and doing it in some depth as against a couple of weeks one year (which, if you only get 2 lessons a week or 3 lessons a fortnight, is not that much) and doing the same topic again next year, and the next, and the next… Once properly is better than superficially touching on it ad nauseum. I’ve been lucky – in the schools where I have taught, MFL has had 3-4 lessons per week and we’ve benefited from the intensity to the learning experience that that brings. It’s not impossible on 2 lessons per week, but it is a bit different. (We got 4 lessons per week by chopping the second language – all pupils studied just one in KS3 and if they were coping well with it, they could pick up another at KS4. It seems much more sensible to me that they all get a generous amount of lesson time and succeed, rather than have most of the school studying two languages for 3 years and then most of the school gives one of them up with nothing really to show for it. After all, it doesn’t take 3 years to work out which language you want to study to GCSE!).
Although I have used the materials that follow in setted groups, they were originally designed for mixed-ability groups with a very wide range of prior attainment. That’s worth bearing in mind. I should also point out that classroom routines figure very prominently in all lessons, so the materials and activities I go into here do not represent everything the class experiences. As I will go on to show later, it’s really the complexity of the language in the classroom routines and the involvement that they promote that make facility with the written language much easier. But that’s another day, another article.
And the last thing to say before I finally get on with it, is that the lessons are taught entirely in the foreign language and without a text book. No text book means a lot of preparation (although I’ve done quite a bit of that for you here) but it also means a lot of time in lessons is freed up for more multi-sensory learning. Use a text book if you like, but it’s a servant, not a master.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at an approach to keeping track of how pupils are progressing in their writing skills over time and then it’s on to the activities.
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