As teachers, we all use PowerPoint. They can be a safety net for us. However, sometimes, if we follow them too rigidly, they can hinder the learning in the lesson. Moving away from them every so often can re-invigorate us as teachers, encourage enthusiasm in our students and reduce our planning time. So what is the best way? I am going to be talking about languages here but I would be interested to hear about other subjects too.
Learning a Language
Languages are unlike other subjects. Students are used to having English to support them in other lessons. This means that in our lessons, they get frustrated when they don’t understand everything. We need students to get used to NOT understanding every word and being okay with that. We must encourage them to see that learning a language is like being a detective. A detective searches for evidence but he rarely has all of the information. However, he still draws his conclusions from what he does know. Learning a language is similar. Students need to learn how to decode the unfamiliar while accepting that they are not going to know every single bit of vocabulary.
With the new GCSEs, this is more true than ever. If we go over every single word with them every lesson then they will misinterpret this to mean that to succeed in languages, they must know everything. Therefore, as teachers, we have to lead by example. Although going over past papers has its place and is a great way to deepen students’ knowledge and understanding, we need to avoid translating everything, every single lesson. If we are introducing any activity, we need to have a focus and a goal for that resource and avoid picking it apart word by word.
Which skills to practise?
My personal opinion is that it is difficult to practise all 4 skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) in depth every single lesson but I do think it is possible to concentrate on 2/3 in detail. There a lot of ways to do this. I personally like to start all my lessons with a listening activity. I then might delve deeper into listening and move into a speaking activity. Similarly, I might delve into a reading text and move it into a writing activity or mix and match. What I try to aim for is that I am practising both a passive and an active skill each lesson. This is for no other reason than it breaks it up for me and the students. Too much of one or the other and they (and me) can become bored and lose focus.
Each lesson should have a skill or grammar point which underpins your whole lesson rather than relying on content as your foundation. This doesn’t mean scrapping your text books or schemes of learning, it just means being pickier with what you introduce into your lessons. Students need to learn how the language works and fits together and this must take priority over simply teaching them new vocabulary.
Listening is one of the hardest skills to conquer. I believe it needs to be included in every lesson. You then get to choose if you are going to develop it into a longer activity or not.
For example, I like to start my lessons with a ‘small talk’ where I babble on (in target language) about something which can be related to previous work (but doesn’t have to be) and then I ask students questions about it. This needs minimal planning. To begin with, I tended to write it all down but as I got more used to it, I would just plan an idea of what I was going to say.
Another activity I have used which is based on ideas from Martine Pillette is to google an interesting person from the country and say some very simple sentences (in target language) about who they were / are and what they did / do. Make sure to use some cognates in there to support students. Again, this could be followed with some comprehension questions.
You could also use YouTube videos of famous people talking in the chosen language. This was a challenge for me to start with as I worried about losing students’ attention but it can be so valuable. You can play a bit and then pause it and summarise and simplify what has just been said. You could also use the pause as an opportunity to go over some key words which have popped up.
Finally, you could still use those listening exercises but change the focus. Ask the students to do different things with them. Get them to listen for tenses, opinions, reasons, connectives etc etc. Use true or false statements with the exercises. Give them 2 options for the answer and get them to pick one. You can have a lot more fun with them when you don’t restrict yourself to the questions in the textbook.
Like I said earlier, it is so important to remember, especially with the new GCSEs that we cannot expect students to understand every word in the target language. We have to show them that not understanding everything is not a weakness. Therefore, it is a good idea to practise this in the lessons. I myself, have moved away from going through texts in detail. Instead I have started to use texts for specific goals / aims.
Before you introduce the text, think about what you want the students to get out of the text. You might have already primed the students for the text with your small talk at the start of the lesson. Is the text mostly in past tense, will it lead to them using the past tense in their own work? Are there a lot of different opinion phrases that you would like students to use in their own work? Use this as a focus when you are planning your activities. Here are a list of ideas which you could use (you don’t have to use them all):
- Ask the students to skim read the text and come up with a title or a few words about what they think it will be about.
- Think about the focus (tenses, opinions etc) and get them to find these in the text. An extra challenge here could be to ask the students to find synonyms / antonyms. Get them to look through past work (In my experience students undervalue the information they already have in their books.)
- Again using the focus you have already chosen, create true or false statements about the meaning of the words they have highlighted.
- Filling in tables. This doesn’t have to be something which must be photocopied. You could write up the table on the board and fill it in with the correct information from the text.
- Jigsaw reading. You could get them to see if they could put the text into the correct order.
- Have some simplified summaries and get students to match them to the paragraphs in the text.
- Have a list of English words and they have to find the corresponding words in the target language.
- Ask students questions about the text in both English and the target language.
- Pick out some key words and ask students to define them in target language (challenge!)
- Gap fill. Blank out some of the words and get students to pick an alternative word.
Sometimes we shy away from including speaking activities as we feel that students don’t take them seriously or that we cannot prove what they have learnt as easily as we can with the other 3 skills.
Firstly, they don’t have to be time consuming activities. They can be as short or as long as you like. You can also do them in pairs or as a class. If you are going to encourage pair work then you can explain the importance of it and praise students who you hear speaking only target language. Here is a list of ideas you can use:
- Asking students to read out parts of a text so that you can correct pronunciation and intonation
- Using the register to ask the students a question in the target language or getting them to say something in the target language
- Repetition of any new language
- Shopping list game in the target language. One student says a word and the next has to repeat it and add another word. You could also do this as a way of extending sentences in the target language.
- Have words on the board and the students have to come up with their own questions
- Have questions on the board and the students have to come up with their own answers
- Battleships in pairs.
- Hot seat. One individual is given a word in the target language and has to sit at the front of the room. The other students have to ask questions in the target language to figure out what the word is. The student in the hot seat can only answer yes or no (again in target language)
- Making up false statements which the students then have to correct
- Playing Chinese Whispers
- Speed dating
- Describing a photo
- Presenting a news report on a specific topic
- Role playing
- Guessing games. A student / teacher has a flashcard behind their back and the other students have to try and guess what it is in the target language
- Teacher giving a statement in the present tense and then students have to change it to another tense
- Naughts and Crosses
- Translation game. The teacher reveals a word which a student has to translate into the target language. The teacher then reveals a few words which are translated and the teacher continues to reveal longer and longer sentences to be translated.
Most of the above activities can be extended into a writing activity. We know, from studies, that the most meaningful feedback for students is the feedback they get in lessons so keep this in mind when doing any writing activities. Like I have mentioned before, think of a focus and give feedback in the lesson based on that focus. It is easier to do live marking when you only have 1 focus as it means that you can whiz round most of the students.
Here are a list of ideas:
- Writing a short description on any of the topics covered but with a focus on the grammar
- Translation from English into target language
- Answering questions
- Correcting false / incorrect statements in the target language
- Writing down an alternative statement to one given by the teacher
- Taking notes on a video / listening extract
- writing down sentences describing a photo
- Completing a sentence with the correct verb form
- Re-writing a jumbled sentence
- Writing a summary of a reading text
- Writing a poem
- Playing the game consequences where students have to write down a sentence (which will eventually lead to a story) fold over the top and then pass it onto another student who will write down another sentence. The teacher guides them on what to write each time.
It is important to remember that it is counter productive for us to ask students to write everything down in their books. Language lessons are 50% listening and speaking and so that should be reflected in the students’ books. Don’t be afraid to not only have a no PowerPoint lesson but a no book lesson too. Use some of these ideas and reconnect with the enjoyment of teaching a language.
Let me know below what activities you use
Until the next time,