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Teaching and Learning MFL in the United Kingdom – An Analysis of Traditional Versus Modern Resources
Science and technologies is a topic that I investigated personally, in order to provide general knowledge about these issues to an A-level group. It soon became more obvious to me that there has been a huge evolution and progress in these fields in the last century. Resources for teachers and for pupils have changed tremendously, moving along the general rapid technological evolution. We have progressed from the discovery of the cinema, to individual televisions with two or three channels in the 1950s, to interactive whiteboards and the internet in schools since the beginning of the 21st century. This phenomenon is particularly interesting and implies a revolution in classrooms.
In order to follow this trend, the government has adapted its policies, to try and provide the best opportunities to develop learning. Information and Communication Technology became statutory in the National Curriculum for Modern Languages in 1999.
Since the turn of the century, classrooms have evolved and developed a great deal. Teaching resources are a complex set of features which can be divided in three major groups: human resources, traditional resources and modern resources.
III.1. Human resources
III.1.a Teachers and students
The first but often disregarded resource available in any teaching and learning situation is the teacher. The classroom situation is a resource for both teacher and learner to develop their skills. Indeed, students are the second main resource within a classroom. Teachers improve their teaching by interacting with their students whilst students acquire new knowledge and skills thanks to the lessons delivered by their teachers.
Modern Foreign Languages classrooms though are very specific setting. The artificial learning situation can be improved by the use of a foreign language assistant. Even if the context is still not authentic, it is the closest that can be achieved within the educational system. Students are given the possibility to improve their listening skills and practice the language with a native speaker. This enables students to have a clear idea of the potential outcome of their learning process. It is motivating and challenging. Throughout my experiences in school X, Y and Z, I noticed that each of these schools had a French native speaker on its roll. They had all acquired the qualified teacher status on the United Kingdom. This can only be beneficial to students as they provide quality teaching but are also able to supply a thorough cultural knowledge about France, Germany or Spain.
School trips are another type of real life resource which, are extremely valuable but are less frequently accessible. For various reasons such as the huge responsibility that it represents, but also due to the amount of paper work required, teachers organise less school trips than they used to. Exchanges which are the most beneficial experience that Modern Foreign Languages students can experience are not carried out any longer by many British schools. As Hawkins explains “two weeks of total immersion in a country where the target language is spoken is equivalent to six months of formal school teaching”.(Hawkins, 1988: 68). This is detrimental to students’ progression but it does not appear to evolve into any more positive direction. Senior management in School X even tries to reduce the number of school trips. To obtain a principle agreement from the headmaster, the trip has to have learning outcomes. I am involved in organising a trip linking the Modern Foreign Languages Department and the Physical Education Department. The objective is to enable year 13 students to visit a French comprehensive school sport’s facilities, as these students have to compare the sport structures in schools of various countries. The interesting aspect of this trip is that it will enable some students from France to practice their languages skills in a very specific context while presenting their schools to native speakers of English.
III.1.b Resources for Special Educational Needs
Learning support assistants are also part of the teaching team in the United Kingdom. They are a very valuable asset for teachers as they represent an extra resource in the classroom. Generally, they are allocated to one specific student who has learning difficulties. They help this student to access the content of the lessons. Inclusion is statutory in the British Educational system. This implies that comprehensive schools are opened to all students and that school have to cater for their individual needs. Schools provide their staff with a Special Educational Needs handbook stating the school policy and the needs of every individual child concerned. It is specified whether the student is under school concern, school action, school action + or statutory assessment.
This staged approach implies each time a close partnership between the teaching staff and the Special Educational Needs staff, but also with the Learning Support Assistants. In means also, in some of the situations, that not only the pastoral and teaching staff have to share information but that they work alongside parents and external agencies. In the Special Educational Needs handbook, strategies to deal with the disabilities and/ or needs are offered to teachers. For instance, ways of supporting a dyspraxic pupil or a sensory impaired pupil are recommended. Some explanations concerning semantic-pragmatic disorder, or ADHD and Ritalin, and Asperger’s Syndrome are provided. A list of useful web sites is also suggested to enhance the teacher’s knowledge of his pupils’ needs.
During my training as a teacher in school X, I shadowed a pupil who had been purposefully chosen by the school. I spent my day with pupil A, “statemented for his language difficulties linked to semantic pragmatic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. He has great difficulties inferring what people actually mean by what they say… He relies heavily on routine… His concentration is limited and he has poor literacy and organisation skills”. (SEN handbook, 2003: section 3) This is the way pupil A is described in the SEN Handbook. His Individual Education Plan shows that the areas of concern are learning, and the areas of need are defined as being the development of Numeracy and literacy skills and the improvement of his communication skills. The targets are as follows: to work independently with staff reinforcement as needed; to join a range of activities at break and lunch time; to start working without individual prompts.
I spent one day with pupil A and his form, going from English to DT, then to French and History. After having read about him, I was worried that breaking his routine, by having to show me round the school, might destabilise him. Nevertheless, he did not seem to be affected by my presence. In every lesson, he was sitting at the front. He was not accompanied by a Learning Support Assistant. However, I noticed teachers spending a little longer explaining him some of the tasks given. They were providing him with specific worksheets and had differentiated the activities for him.
In School X I taught Year 7S1, where 11 pupils out of 27 required special educational needs. No Learning Support Assistant was available, even if two children had been statemented. Pupil B has “a range of medical (restricted growth) and learning difficulties. He is working at level two across the curriculum and finds it hard to concentrate for any length of time… ” (SEN handbook, 2003: section 1). The other students who experience special educational needs are under School Concern or School Action +, mainly for weak Numeracy and/ or literacy skills, and/ or across the curriculum. Obviously, lessons have to be planned to meet the needs of all the students. “Taking the literal definition, differentiation is the process by which we recognise and respond to differences… to cater for differences in learning styles and to combat stereotyping classroom, should provide variety and balance in the different types of experience offered” (Swarbryck, 1994: 72).
Challenge, pace, variety and fun became my motto to try and be as efficient as possible with this form. All the Special Educational Needs students have indeed learning difficulties, as I explained earlier, but seemed to enjoy this new experience of being taught a Modern Foreign Language. Indeed, as Deane (1992: 43-47) states: “Learning a foreign language can be particularly useful for students with learning difficulties, in that they have an extra chance to improve their understanding of language in general”.
School X though is innovative as far as providing support is concerned. They recently hired Learning Support Assistants skilled in specific subject areas, and rather than allocating them to student they assign them to a department. These people are therefore qualified to care for pupils with learning difficulties but are also knowledgeable in a subject area, which benefits students as well as subject teachers. They are an outstanding resource that teachers must incorporate in their planning in order to enable the whole class to profit from it.
Human resources are all the people involved in a teaching and learning setting. However, all the training gained by teachers can also be considered as a resource as it informs their planning. In that concern, meetings with colleagues and senior management, in house training sessions or professional development provided by external agencies are an invaluable resource for teachers to improve their skills as professionals.
III.2. Traditional resources
Among traditional resources, there are obviously textbooks, which vary in quality, accessibility, and originality. The number of books available for French is predominant over any other language. As part of a package, a course contains generally a teacher’s book, master copies of worksheets, overhead transparencies and an assessment folder. Most languages departments have also a vast quantity of visuals, like flash cards, worksheets, and overhead transparencies that they created themselves. Also, you will find dictionaries, books and articles, and board games. Additionally, schools are equipped with cassette and CD players. Usually they have access to televisions and video or DVD players.
In School Y, “Avantage 2”, a French textbook, was used with Year 8 pupils. This course was published in 1993, that is to say that it was printed when pupils were about 2 years old. Needless to say that it looks and is out of date, as well in its design as in its content. It is not structured in a way that allows teachers to follow the activities, and still be in line with the Key Stage 3 strategy requirements. Other components of the course are still relevant, as for instance overhead head transparencies which can easily be used for starters or plenaries. Also some audio resources are of better quality and the activities linked to them can be revisited.
However, some courses are recent and correspond to what pupils of the 21st century need, as for example the latest version of “Tricolore 4” (published in 2002) which is used in School X with Year 10. Some Information and Communication Technology activities are suggested within the course. Also, the teacher’s book provides a basis for a scheme of work giving the entire link to the Programme of Study.
School Z, has been allocated a budget to purchase new books and the whole teacher’s package for all the students doing French at Key Stage 3. This represents a huge investment for the school. Although it is a tremendous achievement for the Modern Foreign Languages department in school Z, there are still not enough books to be able to lend the books out to students. They need to remain in classrooms so that they can be used with other groups. This new resource is up to date and complies with government requirements. School Z also now respects the Ofsted report published in 1996, which states that “Schools should give priority to providing pupils with adequate support for their learning; usually this will mean providing each pupil with a personal copy of a textbook”. (HMSO, 1996: 124). This was not the case in school Z up to September 2005.
This kind of situation is extremely common in the United Kingdom. It is a constraint on both teachers and students as they are not able to make the best use of the resource available. Setting homework, linked to this lack of resources, is a challenging for teachers, who have to resort to worksheets or learning homework. Yet, the books recently published (2004), such as “Expo1, 2 et 3” are built following exactly all the requirements of the National Strategy and the National Curriculum. The activities developed in the Teacher’s Guide are referenced across the Programme of Study. Starters and Plenaries are suggested. Every lesson has learning objectives clearly stated at the top of the page. The Assessment file that is produced within the package offers end of unit assessments. The marking schemes have in-built levels of achievements as required by the National Curriculum that can be awarded according to the student’s performance. The assessment is divided in 4 parts which correspond to the four skills students need to develop; reading, writing, speaking and listening. Expo 1, 2 and 3 have a workbook that can be purchased by students to further develop their independent learning. The course comes in two levels, red for the high achievers and green for the average or lower achievers.
Other traditional resources such as tape players or overhead projector tend to be problematical in many aspects. Often, it is very old material that can break down at any time. Teachers who are not lucky enough to have their own classroom, struggle to have access to all the equipment needed for an efficient language lesson. Although the quality of teaching and learning does not only rely on quality material and resources, it is largely improved if the latter is adequate.
There has been an evolution in the traditional resources produced, but the latest technological developments offer some advantage that textbooks cannot compete with.
III.3 Modern resources: new and adapted tools.
Modern resources consist of all the resources linked to Information and Communication Technology. To understand what this includes, it is imperative to clarify what we mean by Information and Communication Technology. Many people tend to restrict this to computers, interactive whiteboards and the Internet, and forget about cam recorder, video conferencing, CD players, DVD players, digital cameras or computer software. These technologies are all rather recent, but are already very present in classrooms.
III. 3. a. Focus on 21st century pupils
I chose this focus, as I reckon that scientific and technological discoveries have a tremendous impact on society and cultures. Children in Year 13 were born in the late 1980s. At that time, schools started having a few computers. Pupils who are in Year 7 during this academic year were born around 1994. The internet was already becoming accessible. These teenagers have been brought up surrounded by all sorts of new technologies. They are a “visual generation”, watching TV or playing computer games during their free time. They like colours and sound effects. Therefore, it becomes rather obvious that teaching tools had to be adapted consequently. Indeed, when learning becomes entertaining, and less fastidious, pupils not only improve their knowledge but also have fun. However, this does not mean, that old resources have lost all their usefulness and attractiveness, as alongside new technology they improve pupils’ learning as it provides challenge and variety.
III.3.b Government requirements
Since 1999, it has been stated in the Modern Languages National Curriculum (1999: 30) that “Pupils should be given opportunities to apply and develop their Information and Communication Technology capability through the use of Information and Communication Technology tools to support their learning in all subjects”.
Within the Programme of Study, there are also references to Information and Communication Technology in the various sections. It should help to develop languages skills (2h and 2j); it can be used to develop cultural awareness (4a). It develops breadth of study (5d and 5e, 5h).
These features have to be incorporated in the new schemes of work built by school to be in accordance with the Key Stage 3 Framework for Teaching Modern Foreign Languages: Years 7, 8 and 9. It seems that Information and Communication Technology plays a key role in this strategy according to Graham Davies (www.camsoftpartners.co.uk) as for example it is “enabling individual learners to assess and record their own achievement through Information and Communication Technology, raising the quality and widening the range of online teaching and learning material… setting up virtual languages communities”. The Department for Education and Skills has also an e Learning Strategy Unit which tries to provide advice to teachers as how to use Information and Communication Technology efficiently in class.
Indeed, the aim of the teacher when he uses Information and Communication Technology is to enhance learning objectives and not simply to act as a motivating tool. This is also strongly emphasised in the various pamphlets that have been produced about Information and Communication Technology. However, we might want to quote the Nuffield Report in which it is clearly said that at the end of the 1990s, it had become obvious that “where Information and Communication Technology had been used, this had been motivating, particularly for boys.” (Nuffield Foundation, 2000: 46). Considering the disaffection for languages, we can not but think that Information and Communication Technology, if it used as an efficient learning tool, also helps in motivating pupils, should be the trend that all teachers would follow.
III. 4 Traditionalism versus modernism
In 2005 students read less than they used to, and also tend to write less. Modern resources can help them to overcome the apprehension they have of written supports. For instance, a paragraph projected on an interactive white board becomes a whole class activity. The teacher can model the deconstruction of the paragraph, which will help them to understand it, by highlighting in different colours, annotating and pupils can actively contribute in the process.
At this point in time, resources have considerably evolved. However, the survey I carried out at School X shows trends that are not quite in accordance with this evolution. To their credit, I have to say that they only acquired two interactive white boards for the department in December 2003. The school is equipped with various computer suites, laptops and sim pads. Most of the teachers admitted that they had barely tried the new Information and Communication Technology device by the end of February 2004, as 6 out of 9 of them had used it less than 10 times or even not at all, in the two months period that had elapsed between their acquisition and my survey.
As for the pattern of use of Information and Communication Technology in general, 5 of them, quite frankly wrote that they use Information and Communication Technology less than once a month with their pupils, when it is not less than once a term. It also appeared in the survey, that the major use of Information and Communication Technology device they make is computers, and for a few of them the interactive white board. Another element that has to be taken into account is the fact that the teachers who really benefit from the white board are obviously the two teachers, who had them installed in their classroom. They all believe though that it has a positive impact on motivation, some of them doubt about the actual impact on learning, but seem to think that experience will tell. They fear, at the moment that it has merely a novelty value for the students. They regret that they are not trained enough to improve their performances in using these modern devices. Additionally, they agree on the lack of time they have to enhance their skills, as a personal professional development. Indeed, even if teachers are provided with training, it is only if they practise regularly that they will be able to use these tools adequately. One teacher commented: “Some year 7’s are streets ahead of me”.
A New Opportunities Fund has been made available to provide staff with training sessions all over the United Kingdom. However, it has been admitted in the Ofsted Report, in April 2002, “Information and Communication Technology in schools: effect of government initiatives” that the project had failed to provide the right training. “The training focused on building on previously acquired Information and Communication Technology skills, which many teachers at that point did not have” (The Teacher, 2004: 17). Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that the government is aware of the difficulties and tries to work towards improvement.
“Information and Communication Technology is more than just another teaching tool; BECTA’S Impact CT2 study indicates that it has the potential to improve the quality and standards of pupils’ education. Equally its potential is considerable for supporting teachers, both in their everyday classroom role, for example by reducing the time occupied by the administration associated with it and in their continuous training and development”. (canteach.co.uk). According to the survey, most of School X’s Modern Foreign Languages staff says that they use Information and Communication Technology to prepare their lessons, and have to use it for administrative tasks.
If Information and Communication Technology proves to be attractive, entertaining and fun for students, it has also to demonstrate its reliability as far as effective learning is concerned. Are the following 4 main skills, which are used in assessment, still covered? Attainment target 1: listening and responding, Attainment target 2: speaking, Attainment target 3: reading and responding, and Attainment target 4: writing. If attainment target 3 and 4 can be seen as being dwelt with naturally by using computers, either by getting pupils to access web sites in the target language, or organising a “mail a friend” system with a school in a foreign country, or word process a page of a journal or a letter for instance, it seems less obvious to reach any targets of Attainment Target 1 and 2. As far as listening and responding is concerned some software like “dix jeux” provides interactive learning games accompanied by instructions and music. Attainment Target 2 can consist in the presentation of a Power point.
Most of these activities, though, enable teachers to assess to a certain extent the pupils’ learning process. They are often met in KS3 lessons, but what about KS4 and 5 when the targets are GCSE, AS and A level? Do the constraints linked to the curriculum allow teachers to do “entertaining learning” or do they revert to traditional methods still often seen as more appropriate?
Pupil E, a year 11 student in school Y, says he has had the opportunity of “doing a lot of revisions on computers; we found sites and things all in French and it becomes a living language; when you see sites entirely in French you feel connected to the rest of the world”. This comment is particularly interesting, as this pupil mentions that a language is “living” and that indeed it exists outside the classroom. Information and Communication Technology and especially the internet or video conferencing give an authentic dimension to the subject. It opens pupils to the culture of a foreign country. Even if it is only to reach a conclusion as simple as that, it is vital that pupils use Information and Communication Technology. Pupils will achieve better if they are motivated, and as we have seen it earlier, the use of Information and Communication Technology is motivating, particularly for boys as found out in the Nuffield Report.
According to my personal experience, throughout my teaching, I have used Information and Communication Technology rather regularly, as an incentive, but also because it proved to be an excellent teaching tool. Recently, I taught a grammar point to a Year 9 German bottom set, using a PowerPoint presentation on an interactive white board. To assess their understanding, they had to create, the following lesson, a PowerPoint presentation themselves, dealing about the Environment, and as a focus, they had to use the new structure they had learnt, once on each slide. The results were rather impressive. The following step was to present their production to the rest of the group. Students were so proud of the work they had done that they even enjoyed the oral presentation.
“In many schools, it is too early to evaluate the effect of Information and Communication Technology on pupil’s achievement, as the increase in opportunities to use Information and Communication Technology in Modern Foreign Languages is very recent and the ability to use a foreign language has to be built up over sustained period of time. Where evidence is available, there has been little or no effect so far in about one school in four” (Ofsted, 2002: 7). Only 4 years have elapsed since Information and Communication Technology has become statutory across the curriculum, and it seems that what teachers particularly need is time to adapt their schemes of work, resources and teaching practice. Learning a Modern Foreign Languages is indeed a long and difficult process, but teachers themselves have to go through a steep learning curve by becoming more familiar with a technology that is progressing fast.
III.5 Adapting: a key solution?
Adapting the resources to broaden the teaching possibilities seems to be the path that School Y is following. Traditional resources are still used as the department, like many others, owns more of these than modern ones. However, they have been provided with two interactive white boards and software 3 years ago and had a chance to adapt to new technologies. In practice, it is again only two teachers who mainly benefit from this opportunity. The Head of Department is willing to develop the strength of the department, and providing funding is obtained, he would like more of his staff to use this tool. Nevertheless, in a recent departmental meeting, it appeared that they also would like to use text books, if they could afford more recent ones, to suit 21st century pupils’ needs and also which would match governmental guidelines.
On another level, it is not only resources that have to be adapted, but also teachers who have to adapt to new resources as well as to students’ interests. This is obviously not an easy challenge. To help them in that concern, several initiatives have been started up. The project ICT4TL exists since 1999; it consists in a web based course for modern foreign languages teachers. There are also web sites which provide lots of ready made resources, as for instance http://www.wildfrench.co.uk, which offers up to date material, compatible with courses like Avantage, Metro, or Voyage. It helps teachers integrating Information and Communication Technology in their lessons plans. Indeed, we have not stressed one of the dangers of this focus on Information and Communication Technology, which is the fact that some teachers are going to use computers, their objective being to comply with the National Curriculum requirements, rather than having a suitable learning objective.
“A survey published at the end of 2003 found that the vast majority of schools fell that they are well equipped with desktop computers” (The Teacher, 2004:16). Because the funding varies from one school to another, there are still disparities.
The government set up the Excellence in the Cities programme in 1999. It is part of a wider strategy to improve gifted and talented education within inner cities. According to the DfEE web site “all together there are some 1000 secondary schools involved in Excellence in the Cities Programme. Results at KS3 and 4 show that Excellence in the Cities is making a difference”. The government plans to expand this programme by carrying on funding school until 2005 /2006. They plan to involve more schools. It has been reported by the Office of Standards in Education that Excellence in the Cities has a positive impact on behaviour, attendance and attainment. This programme has first been aimed at inner city schools as it was felt that pupils were not provided the possibility to stretch their capacities. Provided with funds by the Government, these schools have manages to acquire new computer suites and Interactive white boards. This tool has the specificity of replacing many other more traditional resources: it can be used as a projector and as a CD player. The software produced is in line with the government’s requirements.
Teachers will no longer be able to avoid Information and Communication Technology in the coming years as it is statutory, but it is also part of a trend now generally followed by schools. The resources will be more easily stored, kept up to date, as it is easier to update parts of software programmes and might be cheaper than acquiring a whole new course and set of textbooks.
Pupils learning has to remain a priority, and if Information and Communication Technology proves to be efficient in the coming years, the next step should be as suggested in The Teacher, 2004: 18: “More will need to be done to convince the examination boards that using Information and Communication Technology effectively throughout the curriculum means using it in the examination room as well as in the classroom”.
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