Last week an EAL Consultant from Catholic Education SA, who I have worked closely with over the past couple of years, invited me to create a video sharing my experiences, observations, data and reflections on the use of Reading to Learn in my English and Italian classrooms. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my own practice, but also to speak to a number of students and hear their reflections about how useful they find this approach to language and literacy. The kids astounded me with the depth of their insights, and I wish I was able to share their videos here (privacy policies prevent me from doing so). Fortunately, their voices will be heard at a formal presentation that the above-mentioned consultant is preventing both overseas and in South Australia. In the meantime, I can publish my own video, so I’ll let the vlog below speak for itself!
This morning I had the pleasure of observing a Year 4/5 Italian class at a local primary school. It was fascinating to witness such a different environment from the language classrooms in a high school.
The lesson began with the students’ class teacher accompanying them to the shared Italian and Science room (perhaps a seemingly odd combination to some but what an opportunity for bilingual learning!). As the children entered the room they immediately greeted their teacher and myself in Italian, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They also responded immediately to questions with ‘Si” or ‘No.’
The class was beginning work on an information report about Australian animals, constructing language using the functional grammar concepts of participants and processes. They are to be introduced to circumstances next week. I found it fascinating to observe the students’ knowledge of -are verbs in the present tense, and their eagerness to participate in the class discussion and respond to the teacher’s questioning. They were patient and genuinely willing to support each other. Even when they were fidgeting, they were engaged with the lesson activities and a pleasure to talk to about their language learning individually.
The students I observed today were lapping up every word they were able to write or say in Italian. They spoke with beautiful Italian accents when asked to read and were so proud of their achievements in the short lesson. Watching this class made me wonder, where do so many children lose this enthusiasm for language learning? Is it in the late primary school years, or early in high school? When do they become so hesitant to take positive risks with their learning? I know this has a lot to do with the age-group I teach, rather than simply the subject…but it is a challenge for teachers of Languages at high school. Where are the gaps, and how can we better foster this love for learning languages in more of our older students?
Sometimes the lessons students remember the most are those that end up looking very little like the original lesson plan. Sometimes the most valuable learning comes from a random idea or a split second decision made by the teacher three steps from the classroom door. This happened to me the other day, and I have to admit, I felt an odd mixture of discomfort at relinquishing control and awe at my students and their creativity. I had a meticulously planned lesson where I knew that my Year 10 students would leave knowing which Italian verbs are irregular in the imperfect tense, but something didn’t feel right as I headed towards the classroom…as well-planned as the lesson was, I wasn’t keen on it so I doubted my students would be.
So I changed my mind at the last second. The new lesson outcome would be that students would leave the 40 minute lesson knowing the most common irregular verbs, and being able to construct one of them. I decided to take a calculated risk and try something that a colleague from another Catholic school (@LaProfOz on Twitter – look her up, she’s a genius!) had presented at a recent workshop – learning Italian verbs through songs. Now this was way out of my comfort zone as I cannot sing to save my life, but I knew that I had some outgoing students who could lead it for me….so I took a deep breath and dove in! I set the students to task in small groups almost immediately, allocating them an irregular verb each. They had the lesson to create a very basic rap or song that would help other to learn their assigned verb. Emphasis on ‘help others to learn’, meaning it had to be catchy, not complex.
Thinking a lesson was plenty of time, I unleashed my genuinely excited little song-writers and wandered, listening to their conversations and trying to give suggestions despite my lack of musical prowess. That’s when I realised that maybe a lesson wouldn’t be enough…by the time groups tried to get the ball rolling between themselves, argued with other groups over who would be able to use a particular song as their background, and then tried to start writing, we got very little done. The task was almost too simple and they seemed to feel the need to complicate it!
We persisted in the following lesson and managed to get a little further. Finally, on Tuesday, some groups began to record their raps and submitted them. Listening to what are some highly creative ‘masterpieces’, I noticed that a couple of the groups had let their imagination run wild, but missed the purpose of the text they were creating….elements of their verb were scattered through the rap (cleverly dubbed over Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’) but it was mostly in English and would be difficult for students to remember the Italian verbs strategically injected among lots of English. One group did get it though, and although they themselves initially had a low opinion of their product, I think it’s great! Their verb was ‘bere’ (to drink) so they made up a short rap that repeated the forms of bere, in the process recounting a tragic story of the star-crossed lovers ‘Latte’ (milk) and ‘Succo’ (juice). Funnily enough, each one of those students got ‘bere’ 100% correct in their test.
Upon reflection, the lesson task had not gone quite as I would have hoped, but there were positive signs for its success if we were to try it again. The students were engaged, even if some of them had missed the purpose of their product. They talked about the task with students from other Italian classes, and even the Year 11 and 12 students had hear about what they were doing. Next time I would do it with more specific guidelines, and perhaps give the students the opportunity to choose their groups and the goal of having to teach one of the junior classes.
And whilst I would never advocate for throwing lesson plans out the window completely, I am glad that I gave up control on this one. If I hadn’t moved outside of my own comfort zone, I never would have known!
I love it when a classroom experiment works!
For some time now I have been experimenting with using Reading to Learn strategies in my LOTE classroom. As an English and LOTE teacher, I am in the fortunate position of being able to play around with the pedagogy in both languages and expand my own knowledge and that of my students in regards to how languages function. For a while I have been using it to build understanding of vocabulary in context in my middle school classes which tended to lend itself to focusing on participants, but I felt the students needed something more.
As mentioned in my previous posts, I am currently involved in a professional development project through Catholic Education South Australia where my main focus is strategies for improving my students’ understanding of the written language system in Italian and their ability to apply in it to their own communications in the subject, as required by the Australian Curriculum: Languages.
I started by gathering raw data on some of my Year 9 students, getting them to write a letter of introduction to me in Italian. Many of them struggled to write more than five lines about themselves.
In order to address this, I decided to extend what I had already been doing with contextual vocabulary and participants, and trial the same methodology in Italian focusing on processes. My aim was for the students to be able to produce a short biography about their favourite band or musician in the target language. The foundation of this was to be achieved during a double lesson this morning.
1. Detailed reading using a model text about the Arctic Monkeys as a ‘hook’. Students highlighted key verb structures and made notes.
2. Cloze exercise using the same text, with verb groups omitted. Students had to fill them into the correct spaces based on their new knowledge.
3. Word bank table containing useful participants, processes and circumstances. Students had to choose a band or musician and add relevant information.
4. Writing – students used the tables to construct ten sentences in Italian about their band or musician. This will be checked before they produce their final copy.
The lesson went extremely well and students engaged for the majority of the double lesson (anyone who teaches Year 9 would know how rare that can be!).
My observations from the lesson
- Highly scaffolded – increased confidence for many students. Some wanted to go beyond what was taught. This was great, however the point of the lesson was to ensure the sentences were structured correctly before moving on, and some were skipping that step in their rush to pack as much information in as possible.
- The students worked silently for an extended period – not because they were told to be quiet, but they were engaged in and concentrating on their own work rather than being distracted by others
- Students who usually struggle with Italian were able to do the task, whilst high achievers were still extended
- Students started to use their own strategies, highlighting the words relevant to their topic, adding new words and asking if they could use the model for structure – showing initiative!
- Students who usually procrastinate actively asked questions, sought support and wanted more information for their own interest and to take their writing further
- More on-task time and independent work.
- Students are being exposed to and are beginning to recognise the features of the past tense without the confusion of going through the structures at this point (one of our challenges is that we never seem to get beyond the present tense with our middle school LOTE learners).
At this stage I can use anecdotal evidence to demonstrate what I feel were the successes of this lesson. Students were clearly feeling more confident about their work, and their questions were less like “what’s the answer?” and more like “how can I do X?” I have gathered some partially finished work samples, but these will be completed next week. Of course, they are not perfect and nor do I expect them to be, but it will be interesting to see how they use feedback given on this piece of writing to refine their final piece for submission. More to come from this very happy Italian teacher!