What I would tell myself when I first started teaching.

1. Get used to the nerves.

I am  about to embark on my third year of teaching and I am sorry to tell you this, but it is quite never like any of the jobs you’ve had before, I can assure you that most teachers still get nervous and even anxious about the new academic year.  In fact I can tell you how relieved I was when  a very experienced Biology  Teacher and Head of Department, told me that  she felt anxious even after eight years of teaching.  She also said that they are not necessarily a bad thing  but that she would ask herself:  Have I forgotten how to teach?

When I heard her saying this, I immediately told her that I felt exactly the same, only much more often and looking back, I think I felt this every single Sunday evening during my probationary year. Although nerves will be with you for a fair number of years, anxiety doesn’t have to be!   I am going to share as many tips that I can actually remember in order to make you feel more at ease.

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Welcome

Why this blog?

I decided to start writing this blog as a way of bringing together my passion for teaching Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) and my love for linguistics. I am by no means an expert, but I am an  educated enthusiast and I am sure that through collaboration, we will all become experts – or at least- the best teachers of modern foreign languages that we can be!

My vision

My hope is that among my readers, I will attract the interest of linguists and teachers alike. In my humble opinion, it is imperative that pedagogy and linguistics come finally together in order to create a basic know-how  of teaching languages in the MFL classroom. I certainly cannot do it on my own, but I hope that you would like to collaborate by either commenting on the posts, writing a post or by allowing a researcher into your classroom.

I feel particularly lucky to have met so many passionate teachers and linguists in my career as a language teacher and a student of German and Linguistics. The effervescence in both fields has always taunted me and tempted me. As a student of Linguistics I was very keen to pursue a PhD  in Second Language Acquisition, however,  my desire to teach was greater and with a few years teaching experience under my belt, I  feel that it is time to dust off those research skills and get writing!

So to wrap this first post up and because I love bullet points! Here are my aims and motivations for starting this blog.

Thank you for reading, and do stick around, get in touch, let me know what you think and if you  are at all tempted  to collaborate, you have already made my day!

 

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Critical Period Hypothesis
Sensitive Period hypothesis and relevance of age in SLA
Background

On the subject of age, there has been a great deal of speculation on the advantages and disadvantages of child vs adult learners. In the scope of this blog I will focus on the “sensitive period” hypothesis as discussed by Oyama (in 1979 in Long, 1990:252). Oyama argues that the sensitive, optimal or critical period has had an “uneven history” and many restrictive connotations have been attached to it.  According to Long, the term was coined originally in relation to embryological development; loss of plasticity in body tissues, and in relation with ethology; imprinting of instinctive behaviours in birds and fish (1990:252). I am sure there is an excellent anecdote about how this biological term was coined in the SLA jargon!

Psst Psst!  If this is getting too long, please click here for a distilled version! 

Critical or sensitive period hypothesis

The critical  or sensitive period hypothesis  has supported the assumptions that new behaviours could not possibly be learnt after a critical period, thus promoting the idea that when it comes to second language acquisition  “the earlier the better “or “early is best”. Such notions may have been conceived in association with the limitations that are normally linked to L1 acquisition. Patkowski (1990) argues that the “the capacity for SLA is not usually believed to be absolute in the same way as the age limitation of L1” and that age capacity limitations in L1 cannot be translated to the L2 learner (1990 in Long, 1990:253).

Disproving the hypothesis
Is younger always better\/
When is it best to start learning a language?

Singleton & Lengye (1995) argue that there might not be “one critical period” which can be applied across the board but that different aspects of language competence may go through different periods which are particularly sensitive for their development (in Johnstone, 2002:7). Interestingly, Singleton (2000) claims that learners exposed to an L2 in primary school and who then at secondary level are mixed with later beginners do not maintain an advantage for more than a modest period over the latter (in Johnstone, 2002:10). In his report for the Council of Europe, Johnstone (2002:12-13) divides the aspects that younger (up to 7 years old) and older learners (8- 15 year old) may find easier in their respective L2 development.

Older vs younger learners of L2
Younger learners Older learners
·       May it find easier to acquire a good command of the sound system of the language. Not just pronunciation but also patters of intonation.

·       They are likely to be less anxious as older learners.

·       An earlier start enables productive links to be made between first and additional languages, which can have important benefits for a child’s language awareness and literacy.

 

·       May be able to plot their language on to concepts about world which they already possess from their L1. Thus helping their vocabulary acquisition (Ausbel, 1964).

·       They may be more experienced in handling the discourse of conversations and other language activities, and thus may be more adept at gaining feedback and in negotiating meaning (Scarcella and Higa,1982)

·       Due to their L1 literacy, they are likely to have acquired a wider range of strategies for learning.ie. note taking.

 

Table 2 Comparison of L2 advantages of younger and older learners (Johnstone, 2002:12:13)

As we can see from the information above, there are both advantages and disadvantages to being a young or an older learner and in fact, there seems to be more advantages in being an older child learner.  According to Krashen (1975, 1982) this may be due to the changes in cognitive development that occur around puberty and that are related to adult-child differences in second-language development (in McLaughlin (1982:71). Krashen (1975) adds that neurological events related to the cognitive maturation of the individual could in turn affect the development of a second language (in McLaughlin, 1984:71). Furthermore, Taylor (1974) claims that the degree of cognitive maturity of the learners is the only distinguishing factor in the psychological SLA strategies deployed by adults and children (in McLaughlin, 1984:71). McLaughlin (1984:71) on the other hand, argues that there does not seem to be evidence of biological limits to second language learning. Nor is there evidence that children possess special, biologically-based language abilities that give them an advantage over adults in language learning (1984: 69).

According to Long, in order to reach a consensus on what a “sensitive period” consists of in SLA, “there must be universal and regular limits that could demarcate it” (1990:251). Although an extensive amount of research would be required to even attempt to map the various sensitive periods in SLA, Long supports the idea that maturational constraints on language development is an important criteria that should be considered in SLA practice (1990:251).

How does this affect my teaching? 

Bibliography

Long, M. H. (1990, September). Maturational Constraints on Language Development. Studies in Second Language Acquisiton, 12, 251-285.

McLaughlin, B. (1984). Second Languge Acquisition in Childhood: Volume 1. Preschool Children. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Johnstone, R. (2002). Adressing ” The Age Factor”: Some Implications for Languages Policy. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Oyama, S. (1979, April). The Concept of the Sensitvie Period in Developmental Studies. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 25(2), 83-103.

Paradis, J. (2008). Second Language Acquisition in Childhood. In E. Hoff, & M. Shatz (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Language Development. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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The five best things about being a Modern Languages teacher

Let’s face it, our job is not an easy one. Whilst DT has amazing machinery to use and all the STEM subjects have loads of support and investment, our field can be sadly overlooked as soft skill. On top of that, we are always beating ourselves up for something or other,  be it sufficient use of target language (TL) or how to engage students on a new topic.  At least those two things are in my constant mental litany.

It is really useful to get bugged down in the tiny details in your classroom or a failed lesson plan, but let’s not forget that we are doing something really amazing and here are the best things about our job as Modern Foreign Language Teachers.

1.Finally using your language

This is so easily overlooked, and after a while we forget to congratulate ourselves for being in a position where we can finally use this fantastic skill on a daily basis. Whether your are a native speaker of the language you teach, or if you are 50-50 like me (native Spanish, with  a German degree), I know you will be thrilled to have a job where your language skills are at the centre! No more call centre jobs for you!! Yipeee!

2.Inspiring young people

I never thought of myself as  an “inspiring” teacher,  that is until some of the children’s parents actually told me that I had inspired and given confidence to their children. I know there are so many more teachers that have inspired pupils, sadly,  you only really seem to hear it after you leave a school, so please do not be discouraged. I am certain that you are inspiring others and I know this, because you are reading this and you care about your practice.

How to inspire pupils

How did I inspire them? Well… I am not entirely sure, however, from their comments and their farewell cards, I inferred the following:

  1. Scaffolding and support- bite size pieces they could master before moving onto bigger things. It will take time but in the long run, it pays off.  There are not short-cuts for learning a language.
  2. Encouraging them to use the target language through my own use of target language. In my current school I am known for speaking to kids in the TL in the corridors, our conversations aren’t great but they can all say , Hi, how are you? I am great! Not great! Thanks!
  3. Praise, Praise, Praise!  Acknowledge their effort every step of the way, let them know how happy their efforts make you, children want to succeed and feel confident at what they do, we all do!  If you can offer that praise in the TL , even better!   On my training year,  a small group from my German S2 class would often whisper something as I was walking down the corridors. At the beginning, paranoia set it but I remember what Dr Lynch taught us in my PGDE ” the only behaviour you can control is your own” . So I let it be, smiled at her and said good morning.  She then said it again but I still didn’t make it out. A few days later… in class I walked up to her desk and looked at her work and said my usual: ” Sehr schön!” she looked really happy and  a few classes later I realised that some of the kids started praising each other saying the same thing. Then she started greeting me that way in the corridors. One of the best memories from my training year.
  4. Let them know you have their back!  A byproduct of praise is that pupils feel that you are proud of them and this sets a really important condition for teacher/pupil relationships.  At some point these kids will chose their subject for Nat 5/ GCSE. They might be young but they aren’t daft! Would you rather choose  subject where you know the teacher will support you and have your back when the going gets tough? Or would you rather go to a teacher that you can’t relate to, either because you are too scared of them or you just don’t trust they care about your success?
  5. Allowing them to speak for mess my lesson plan.  They are kids, not machines, some activities will take longer, some may not even get done, just ask yourself: Are they learning?
  6. Be yourself- We are all different, you might be the sarcastic dry humour teacher, you might be the musical teacher, you might be the super strict teacher, be yourself.  I spent too long trying to be a teacher I could never be and guess what , it didn’t work.  This will take time and if you are about to start your probationary year, my advice to you is : just be three times as strict as you think you should be! Trust me, you can always ease off later ( I really wish I had done this).

3. Bestowing the power of a new language identity on others.

I am not sure about you, but I certainly feel that my personality definitely changes slightly depending on the language I speak. Yes, of course I am the same person,but there is definitely something about teaching a language that transports you to a different culture and a different version of yourself.

It is definitely amazing when you see your teenage pupils adopting an accent or mannerisms when they speak, it is specially thrilling when you have a speaking exam with the quietest person in your class and they totally kill it!  Or when a few kids agree that they will both say something about each other’s friendship. It is definitely on days like this when I go home with a smile in my face.

4. Being around young people

I am not calling you old, but we are definitely not teenagers anymore!  For me one the most energising and exhausting parts of teaching is being around these human conductors of energy. Their highs are HIGH and their lows, even lower.  I love the moment when they finally get how to use the perfect tense and their face looks positively  glowing with pride. The next day this same vessel of knowledge might have had a dreadful argument at the playground and guess who will get their wrath on period 6? Yes you guessed it, it will be you! You lovely unsuspecting  teacher, just as  you are putting the final touches to your lesson plan,  this kid is racing up the stairs with a million thoughts about how things never go his/her way. And the next thing you know, you have an unwilling teenager that you have to discipline.  The silver lining to these lows is that you  get to see a different side of this child,  and although at the beginning of your teaching career you might think that his misbehaviour is somehow your fault, why not try to get to know him/her better. You will be positively surprised at the result!

I love the moment when you see one of them doing something you used to do as a kid. Some of those moments can be really endearing, such as finding little drawings similar to the ones I used to have in my jotters, others can be a bit frightening, like the way I used to answer back to my parents.  Never the teachers though! I was a really good pupil.

Being around  them is what gives your pace and energy without them, the school is a ghost town. And one of the things I wonder after teaching only two years, is : At what time did I stop feeling and showing  my wide range of emotions with that intensity?

5. Enjoying Music and Film in the Foreign Language

Film and Series

Watching 5 minutes of Netflix  with the kids after a hard lesson is an amazing thing to do.  I am not  a very strict teacher, this is something I really have to work on. Instead, I wave the Netflix carrot in front of them , if they behave well and produce all the work I need from them, we can treat ourselves to five minute Netflix.  The best thing, is that you can put the subtitles in the TL or English, depending on the options. Just type Spanish/German/French in the search bar and you will be surprised how many foreign language films and series you will find. You only need one really, you only want to wave that carrot once a week at most!

Warning! Please watch the whole programme at home first before ever mentioning to the kids. You don’t want your name associated to some questionable tv shows.

Music

This year I have been trying to use music to teach  or practise some grammar point.  I tried this before but I was too much of a novice to really know what I was doing with it. I used to use songs as just a gap fill exercise and then forget about them. Now I take my time and  use songs in a variety of ways.

I have also asked pupils to follow music lists in Spotify,  I would just find one that someone else has made and ask pupils to find it. This should be easy enough if you have a smartboard.  At the beginning, they played it cool and said it was ok but  a few months later they were asking me to play it in class whilst they were doing some grammar exercises.

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The ultimate guide to SLA literature for Teachers of MFL

Work in progress

When I decided I wanted to start blog as a way of organising my own interests and research in SLA and Pedagogy, I realised that there were certain topics that I wanted to  tackle first.  I am very lucky to have been able to discuss my initial ideas with Dr Michael Lynch. 

Over the next couple months I hope to at least begin to cover the first three topics, but as usual I would love to know which ones do you think are most relevant to MFL teachers? Perhaps you would like to write one of those?

  1. Critical Period Hypothesis.
  2. The importance of Errors. What do they teach us? How best to approach them?
  3. Feedback and Recast
  4. Benefits of Reading in MFL
  5. Importance of Reflective Practise for yourself and your pupils.
  6. Transfer between L1 and L2 . How can we use it to our advantage?
  7. Teaching Vocabulary
  8. Teaching Grammar
  9. Teacher Cognition and the Importance of Prior Knowledge
  10.  SLA theories that have shaped the Teaching of Modern Languages
  11. What we can  learn from ESOL Pedagogy

 

intersting article 

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