A Leadership Legacy Project think-piece by Harriet O’Rourke, Sandbach High School and Sixth Form College
I teach in a school with a policy of languages for all at GCSE. This is a principle I fundamentally believe in, having seen pupils of all backgrounds grow not just as linguists, but in terms of literacy, creative thinking, and, so importantly, resilience. One of my core beliefs as a teacher, a linguist, and a leader is that MFL should not be an elitist subject enjoyed only by the most able or privileged students.
However, I often found myself having discussions with pupils and other teachers about pupils’ confidence and resilience in MFL, especially those in lower ability sets who find a GCSE challenging. The stress of speaking assessments was a common theme, and I even discovered that foreign language anxiety, or xenoglossophobia, is a phenomenon which has generated some research in recent years. I also recognised the challenge of ensuring that students could retain vocabulary and structures and so wanted to research the potential of retrieval practice.
Initial Action Research
Dr Gianfranco Conti, Steve Smith and Dylan Viñales, have developed a technique for MFL teaching called extensive processing instruction, or EPI. One principle which interested me was the idea of teaching linguistic ‘chunks’ rather than individual words. For example, they suggest that learning the phrase je suis allée is no more cognitively challenging than learning a single word and is certainly less challenging than learning perfect tense formation. It’s not shying away from difficult concepts, but simply planning your input carefully to reduce cognitive load: teaching the grammar once pupils are confident with the content. I attended a course by Conti in 2019 where he explained and modelled the EPI process and shared my learning with colleagues. I trialled the strategies in my lessons, as did some other teachers, and we were impressed with the benefits on our pupils’ learning. Through the use of careful modelling, extensive processing, and systematic recycling of chunks, I found my class’s ability to recall language improved.
As a department, we recognised that getting pupils positively engaged with languages from the offset reaped rewards in terms of confidence and engagement further down the line. I was inspired by the work and ideas of teacher and author Martine Pillette. She stresses the importance of quality over quantity in MFL curriculum design – not overwhelming the curriculum with too much content at key stage 3 so that pupils can master the core skills needed to be successful linguists. This was also highlighted by Conti – the textbooks available for MFL teaching have far too much content for effective learning and retrieval to take place. We want our pupils to have a deep, long-term and adaptable understanding of both the knowledge and skills required to succeed as linguists. It’s so important that we use key stage 3 as a time to thoroughly embed the core skills we need, and don’t attempt to see it simply as an extension of GCSE where content needs to be taught and retaught.
Designing the curriculum
I was given the opportunity to work on a rewrite of our key stage 3 schemes of work for both Spanish and French to reflect these principles. During lockdown we together designed a scheme of work based on quality over quantity, planned retrieval, and language chunks. We planned for lessons to draw heavily on Conti’s EPI methodology, following a cycle called MARSEARS for the introduction of new content. MARSEARS is EPI in practice, and involves extensive modelling, first encouraging pupils to notice form and meaning, before pupils are expected to produce the language themselves. Production is highly structured, and output is “forced” (highly controlled) to ensure extensive practice, before we widen the scope to include grammar teaching. Only when the content has been thoroughly practised and learned do we begin to draw in prior learning through careful interleaving.
The extensive modelling required to introduce new language puts the teacher as the central resource for the lesson, with lots of aural input and fast-paced activities. ‘Listening as modelling’ is one of the key principles, followed by ‘reading as modelling’. Only when the language has been highly modelled in these ways are pupils given the opportunity to practice in pairs or independently. Many aspects of the lesson feel like games to the pupils, which we felt was important for providing low-stakes practice to build pupils’ confidence.
It has also been important to think through where opportunities for interleaving arise in the scheme of work. In order for deep learning to have been achieved, it is essential that pupils are able to use knowledge and skills from both the current topic and prior learning, and this requires formally planned retrieval and the recurrence of specific vocabulary items and structures with planned spacing. This is not just planning where topics may repeat themselves, but also planning where individual structures for example ‘reflexive verbs’ can be repeated. When writing the scheme of work, we labelled this clearly on the curriculum map.
I became curriculum leader for the MFL department during lockdown. I have been responsible for the implementation of this new curriculum since September. I felt that the core principles of this suited the post-lockdown recovery of our curriculum very well, since it provides so much scaffolding and support, with prior learning only brought in once pupils are confident with the topic. Therefore, I made the decision that the curriculum would be introduced in every year group at key stage 3. I also felt that this would help teachers in the department to focus fully on the teaching style and the methodology, rather than trying to plan lessons for two very different teaching styles.
It was important to ensure that all teachers in the curriculum area felt confident with the new curriculum and teaching style. We all felt very strongly about reasons behind it, the need to do more to build confidence and retention in our curriculum, but I was aware that asking teachers to drastically change their approach to planning and teaching lessons was a significant change. One early idea was to organise our resources through shared planning, with each teacher planning and preparing the resources for one cohort and language. When small groups of pupils were in school in July, teachers met together to plan initial lessons following the MARSEARS cycle, and we planned the first half term’s worth of lessons for each language. Since many teachers had not been involved in the research or the planning of the curriculum, this acted as a workshop in the pedagogy behind the scheme of work.
When lessons began, I talked extensively with each teacher about how they found the process of planning and teaching in this new style. I’m lucky to teach in a school where learning walks and open doors are a normal part of everyday teaching, and both I and several other teachers in the department were able to conduct learning walks to see the techniques in practice. Towards the end of the first half term, together with my assistant curriculum leader, I conducted a more extensive departmental questionnaire looking more closely at what worked well in the MARSEARS cycle. I asked teachers to reflect on the impact on pupils’ learning. It is perhaps inevitable that some teachers felt more confident with the process than others, but knowing where the strengths were in my team allowed me to buddy up teachers with each other, or to provide support myself. Along the way, we have also had to learn to adapt the techniques for remote learning and blended learning, and we were lucky that members of the department excelled in this area.
As both a teacher and a leader I feel strongly about the importance of bespoke planning and differentiation for my classes, so I was quite keen to move away from shared planning once all teachers were confident about the process and the style of teaching. Several teachers also commented on this in the survey. To facilitate bespoke planning that still fits tightly within the pedagogy, I have ensured that we have a robust toolkit of lesson activities and suggestions for each stage of the MARSEARS cycle. Of course, we are still in the initial stages of teaching this way, and I will be continuing to focus on how this curriculum impacts on pupil progress in the medium and long term.
We have unanimously noticed in our classrooms the increased engagement and improved confidence of the pupils. The focus on speaking and pronunciation in low-stakes environments has reaped rewards when pupils come to speak spontaneously, and the careful use of retrieval is improving test scores. I recently had a real moment of pride when conducting speaking assessments with my bottom set year 9 pupils were able to speak spontaneously and accurately with confidence. Making the subject accessible for all pupils feels much more achievable when teaching in this way. Several teachers have also begun to use the MARSEARS techniques with their key stage 4 classes.
Collaboration is one of the most important tools I have gained from this process. It’s perhaps one privilege of lockdown that I had the time to work collaboratively with other teachers in my department to make such big changes. However, it’s also important to mention the collaboration beyond my school. As part of the Leadership Legacy Project, we were encouraged to engage via social media, and for my purposes, Facebook has been the most valuable network. I discovered through language teacher networks that the MARSEARS methodology is becoming increasingly popular amongst language teachers. There is a growing community of teachers in the UK and around the world who are using the EPI methodology and I have both shared and received excellent resources and tips on the Global Innovative Language Teachers page, which has been especially useful in the later phases of the process as I flesh out resources for consolidation and retrieval.
This project started out as a piece of action research as a classroom teacher and became significantly bigger due to how well it was received by the department. I have also gained more influence over the process of implementation and design due to the significant change to my role from teacher to curriculum leader. I am so far incredibly pleased with the new curriculum and based on initial assessment I am proud of how we have improved the quality of pupils’ education in MFL in my school. There will inevitably be adjustments to be made, but as we go through the process of independent planning, I am keen to ensure that these adjustments do not stray too far from the core principles of the curriculum.
Dr Gianfranco Conti
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