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“I’m learning to speak Greek without a language teacher”

Colin Logan, SSAT Senior Education Lead, explains how his recent experience of learning a new language has offered a useful reminder on what makes a good scheme of work

“So what did you do during furlough?” a friend asked me recently. Between May and the middle of August I must have done more gardening and decorating and watched more cricket on television than you could shake a stick at. But there was one other target I’d set myself – or in fact two.

The first was to learn to play the accordion. My wife bought me one as a Christmas present about 15 years ago and I’d only picked it up in fits and starts in the meantime. I had the chord chart and plenty of music, so there was nothing to stop me from taking full advantage of the enforced downtime.

The second goal was to learn Greek. We’d visited Greece many times over the previous 20 years and, as a languages teacher in an earlier life, I’d always felt embarrassed that I could only manage the most basic attempts at ordering food and drink.

I’d already dabbled with a “teach yourself” audio course and watched a few episodes of Talk Greek on YouTube but hadn’t made any real headway with them. A friend then told me that she had been learning Spanish online, which my inward languages teacher found completely ridiculous. “You can’t learn a language without a languages teacher” he reminded me, “you need someone there to guide you, correct you, ask you the right questions, explain the intricacies of grammar…”.

Nonetheless, more in an attempt to prove myself right than to see if it would work for me, I decided to give it a go and downloaded the free Duolingo app on my iPad. As I write this, I’m on my 183rd daily streak. In other words, every day for more than six months I’ve logged in to the app and practised my Greek until I’ve at least reached my daily target each time. In other words, it’s worked.

The format each time you log in is similar. You start each section by matching words to pictures, then you rearrange a jumbled sentence into the right order, then you type in what you can only hear (the interchangeable keyboard on the iPad makes it a doddle to use the Greek alphabet) and then finally you translate a phrase from English into Greek. It sounds mind-numbingly boring and something that you might keep up for a few days or even weeks but then start missing out the odd day or two until the gaps between lessons become wider until you stop doing it altogether. And yet, here I am, 183 days later, having only missed a day and that was when Duolingo’s server went down. Why?

At SSAT we’ve done a lot of work over the past couple of years on principled curriculum design, and we’re running the next webinar on 27 January. The Duolingo approach can give us some useful reminders about some of the things that help to make a good scheme of work.

Gain a thorough understanding of the principles behind effective curriculum design and how to approach it in practice, with Colin Logan, Senior Education Lead on 27 January. Find out more.

When you log into Duolingo, you immediately see the whole picture. All the levels and sub-levels are clearly mapped out. You can see where you’re going to be starting but also what will come next and what that will then lead on to. You can clearly see how what you’re doing now prepares you for the next level and why you need to learn this before you learn that. In other words, they’ve identified what Dylan Wiliam calls the “big ideas” and have got the sequence of learning spot on.

Each time you log in, you can do as many units leading up to one of the five levels within each learning goal as you want. But you also know that you have your own daily target to reach. I normally only do about 20 minutes a day, but I’ve never logged off before I’ve reached my daily target. Why? Because you are constantly being encouraged, told how you’re doing and, if you get something wrong, you get the opportunity to show that you can do it properly later in the session. And you can also exercise some control over your own learning by adjusting your daily target to what you want – so they’ve got the motivation, assessment and feedback right as well.

Although the “big ideas” might at first glance look very separate and siloed (for example “animals”, “food”, “possessives”, “present tense”, “conjunctions”…) there is constant recap and recall as you go through. So, when you’re doing something on the present tense of verbs, you’ll suddenly need to be able to recall what a bear is, or, when you’re doing objects in the house, you’ll need to be able to recall how to say, “I sleep” and then how to manipulate that into “they sleep”. There is continual referral back to previous learning. I often find that I can’t remember a particular verb form or noun from earlier topics but, once I’ve been asked for it, I either look it up in my notes or wait for the correct answer which then helps me to remember it the next time. It’s not rocket science but it’s very effective.

Ongoing assessment is an integral part of the teaching. The nature of my next task will depend on my answer to the current one and, as I’ve already said, I get the opportunity to show I can do anything I still haven’t grasped later in the session. As well as this formative assessment (and you also get rewarded with hearts and crowns as you go), after each set of big ideas there’s a checkpoint where you can show that you’ve mastered what has gone before. So, summative assessment – another tick.

I’m not saying I’m now fluent, although I can now say “The elephant is not drinking wine, but the children are wearing hats”. But it’s not all unconnected learning as I first thought. Through being exposed to the specifics of each topic and having prior learning woven into it, I’m finding that I’m starting to be able to manipulate the language for what I want to say. In other words, I’m moving on to being able to use the language for my own purposes rather than being restricted to say only what has been presented to me. And that, surely, is the ultimate objective of language learning.

Less good news, I’m afraid, on the accordion front. I have taken it out of its case a few times since May and attempted once again to master the left-hand chords to From Russia with Love but it’s still very much work in progress.

Join Colin at the next virtual curriculum seminar on 27 January where he will explore SSAT’s four pillars of curriculum design and consider how the deep dive methodology can be used for self-evaluation. Book your place now.

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