Revising revision in MFL

Rote learning of stock phrases short-changes language students and ties their hands in exam settings. More innovative – and useful – approaches to language revision can change that, says Jane Jones.

The semi-apologetic phrase ‘only doing revision’ devalues the highly skilled teaching and formative assessment involved in good revision. It can provide opportunities for pupils to practise, hone and demonstrate their linguistic knowledge and skills; yet  some revision activities in modern foreign languages (MFL) seem to close down options for students to use their language fully and flexibly.

The focus becomes fixed on paradigms, lists and formulaic expression that can paralyse comprehension and leave students lost for words in exam settings. Mindful of this, I set a challenge for my trainee teachers to devise revision activities for Key Stage 4 pupils that would provide structure as well as opportunities to diverge and to be creative.

Engaging with assessment

Revision is most productive when it reflects regular classroom learning, teaching and assessment styles (albeit more intensified), and a classroom culture of challenge and collaboration. The student teachers were very inventive in their ideas for quality revision. Their work was underpinned by a strong belief in the basic tenets of an Assessment for Learning approach, providing activities to progress learning and ensuring students took responsibility for their learning and gave support to their peers. The revision activities were collaborative and mutually supportive, the learners benefiting from helpful questioning and feedback from each other. The aim was for them to know what ‘good work’ looked and sounded like – crucial in MFL.

Newly qualified teacher Nicola provided an example of revision activities on the topic of ‘healthy lifestyle’. Following some initial recall and practice exercises using the mark scheme as a guide, pupils in her German class had to come up with an answer to the question ‘what makes a healthy lifestyle?’  After a few lessons marking each others’ work and scrutinising sample answers from the exam board to generate success criteria, the pupils attempted to answer the question in groups. The criteria were: use three tenses, give your opinion, and use complex language.

Nicola provided a hint on how to tackle the question to achieve the highest possible marks, but the students then took over, adapting previously learnt language and creating new language to hit the success criteria. The students then swapped their answers with other groups, got out their mark-scheme checklists and awarded grades, highlighting aspects of language which scored points based on the success criteria and also the GCSE exam marks. They became quite expert, says Nicola, and sample responses were written up as exemplars and shared with the class.

This example shows how pupils can engage deeply with the assessment criteria and come to an understanding for themselves through peer- and self -assessment of what they need to be able to do.

Furthermore, such activities can wrap around any aspect of assessment. This provides a huge confidence boost and enables pupils to become not just skilled test-takers, useful though this might be (McDonough, 1995), but expert examiners for themselves. In this way, summative assessment can be very formative (Jones and Wiliam, 2008) and can generate creative and contingent use of language as well as consolidating known structures and vocabulary.

 The student teachers felt that intensive periods of challenging revision could be integrated more regularly into normal MFL teaching and learning as part of pupils’ self-guided learning and assessment awareness. In such a way, revision is not confined to an end of year activity but becomes a central driver and enabler of learning in a continuous cycle of revision.

Dr Jane Jones is Senior Lecturer in Education and Head of MFL Teacher Education at King’s College London

 

References: 
  1. Jones , J. and Wiliam, D. (2008) Modern Foreign Languages inside the Black Box. London: GL Assessment.
  2. McDonough, S. (1995) Strategy and Skill in learning a Foreign Language. London: Edward Arnold.

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