Four useful sets of pre- and post-task activities that enhance learning

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Here are four sets of activities that I carry out before and after engaging students in more cognitively and/or linguistically demanding tasks. The rationale for them is that they facilitate the performance of the target task by providing the learners with opportunities (a) to recruit as much relevant information as possible from Long-term memory and (b) to practise the skills involved in the target task in ‘safer’ and more structured ways before launching in less structured and more ‘stressful’ activities. The execution of these activities not only results in greater learning, but also mitigate learner anxiety and significantly impacts their sense of self-efficacy.

1. Pre-/Post-speaking task activities – Before engaging in a challenging speaking task, especially when it is an unstructured one and requires spontaneous talk, I make sure that the students have a full-on warm-up which involves all four skills and gives the students plenty of formative feedback from myself or their peers.

Pre-task

Step 1 – ‘Fun’ and challenging vocabulary building activities (see www.language-gym.com/work-outs for online self-marking examples) and gapped model sentences activities containing the kind of language which you predict students are likely to use. ‘Drum the words/phrases in’ as much as you can for 10-15 minutes.

Step 2 – Narrow listening activities. By these I mean very short texts/model sentences about the topic, which the students might find useful. Students have to note down the gist of each text.

Step 3 – ‘Public chatroom’; on Edmodo, Facebook or a google doc, the students ask questions generated by themselves or by the teacher about the topic-in-hand to specific classmates, the whole class or even the teacher. A slow chat unfolds which is displayed ‘live’ on the screen, for everyone to see, in which students write to each other and teacher monitors and gives concurrent feedback. Writing/talking mats maybe used to scaffold this activity.

Step 4 – Preparation; the students are given a few more minutes to prepare for the speaking task, ask the teacher or their peers for clarification where needed, look at any scaffolding material provided (e.g. writing/talking mats).

Step 5 – The speaking task is carried out 2 or 3 times with different partners. Scaffolding is allowed but gradually removed. – unless the students are still not very confident, they should do the final ’round’ without any scaffolding

Post-task

Step 6 – students, rigorously without a script, carry out and record same task on mobile phones or iPads.

Step 7 – students view the video-recording and have another go. Both recordings are shared with the teacher.

  • 2. Before using writing/talking mats for speaking or writing – Writing/Talking mats are often used to scaffold oral or written production, but way too often are given to the students before a demanding task without much of a chance for the students to acquaint themselves with the meaning of most of the words, with  the way the information is organized, with how the vocabulary is pronounced, etc. I always carry out the activities below – and more – before using the mats to scaffold a more cognitively demanding task, to enable the students to use them more effectively and efficiently.

Step – 1 Word/phrase hunt; give the student (either on paper or via google classroom) a list of words/phrases to search for in the writing mats (under time constraints)

Step 2 – listening comprehension; (Provided that the writing mats are clear, well-structured, not overly crowded and have bilingual translation) Put the mats on the screen and give each student a mini-board (alternatively they can write on i-pad using the ‘Educreations’ App). Make up sentences  (incrementally more difficult), utter them clearly and ask them to translate from L2 to L1 than from L1 to L2 on their mini-boards. The sentences can be pre-recorded. I do this on my iPad using Voice Recorder Pro and air-play them – a very quick and easy process that takes a few minutes only.

Step 3 – listening comprehension in  groups; students do the same task you modelled in Step 2, in groups, taking turns to make up sentences for their peers to understand and keeping score as to who gets the most sentences right

Step 4 – gapped / jumbled / altered sentences for the students to ‘restore’ to the original version in the mats

Step 5 – writing mats can now be used to scaffold writing, the teacher being safe in the knowledge that the students are better acquainted with the mats and can use them more rapidly and flexibly

3. Pre-/Post-listening and Pre-/Post reading comprehension activities – Before a reading and listening comprehension task teachers may want to involve learners in two types of activities in order to (a) facilitate comprehension and consequently learning; (b) to consolidate the material they have just processed during the comprehension tasks. The (a) type activities would involve two kinds of activities: firstly, schemata activation, that is the activation of background knowledge about the target theme, what the students know already about it. A very easy-to-prepare activity would be, prior to reading an article about French eating habits, to brainstorm in groups of three or four (possibly in the target language) all one knows about the topic. This activity stimulates top-down processing skills in preparation for the reading task. The other (a) type activities would include vocabulary building activities which recycle 4-5 times the key vocabulary in the target text. These activities are equally important as they support bottom-up processing skills. After completing the reading comprehension task, activities could be carried out which include: (a) activities aimed at consolidating the language learnt; (b) metacognitive activities involving the students on reflection on what they found hard in the text and/or on three key things they learnt.

4. Pre-/Post-test activities – Before carrying out a test I always make sure that the students have ten minutes at least to warm-up through vocabulary building activities on words related to the topics covered by the test. I usually draw on my website, www.language-gym.com as we use iPads. Even if the students come across words that are in the tests’ reading/listening texts I do not see it as unethical; after all, any assessment, to be valid and fair, should test students only on what they have learnt. For the assessment to have a positive wash-back effect on learning, provided that there is time for it, I make sure that the interesting language in the test is not wasted by staying confined to the assessments task(s). Without carrying out any ‘post-mortem’ as to how well the students did, I usually engage them in fun vocabulary-recycling activities which involve some kind of dynamic learning and get the students moving round (e.g. vocabulary treasure hunts around the classroom or MFL department corridors) and/or elicit a strong competitive response (e.g. Kahoot quizzes). A good way to put an end to the depressing and lethargic post-test atmosphere that sets in after an assessment (especially when it was lengthy and challenging).

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Does too much noun-orientated foreign language teaching hinder our students’ learning?

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When one observes language lessons, browses through textbook vocab lists, schemes of work, published worksheets / Powerpoints and specialised websites, with very few exceptions, one cannot help but notice that nouns make up the overwhelming majority of the target vocabulary. Look at the vocabulary website most widely subscribed to by British schools in the UK and around the world, www.linguascope.com, for instance; it teaches hardly any verb (as in: their meaning), adjectives, adverbs or function words. When it does, it is as part of formulaic units, set phrases such as ‘regarder la télé’, ‘je me couche’ or ‘je joue au foot’.

The emphasis on nouns is acceptable at the early stages of foreign language instruction, when the students are not familiar with verb conjugations, tenses and aspect, may not master modal verbs like ‘vouloir’,’pouvoir’ and ‘devoir’ and have poor control over word-order and syntax in general. However, as language learners progress along the proficiency continuum and acquire more knowledge and control over the mechanics of the language, learning verbs becomes imperative. The reader should note that I am not arguing in favour of teaching masses of verb conjugations (although I personally think it is important) ; what I mean here, is learning the meaning of verbs, i.e. that ‘manger’ means ‘to eat’, ‘courir’ to run, ‘nettoyer’ to clean, etc.

The benefits for language learners of possessing a wide repertoire of verbs (even when one does not master conjugations perfectly) are self-evident in terms of enhanced receptive and expressive power and, consequently, more effective autonomous competence. There are also other benefits for learning which may explain how the practice of not emphasizing the learning of verbs may be correlated with lower levels of proficiency.

One benefit relates to adverbs, one word-class which is, in my experience, underrepresented in the oral and written output of foreign language learners. The learning of many adverbs goes hand in hand with exposure to / use of verbs, as adverbs are mostly used with verbs. Hence, the more frequent the exposure to / use of verbs, the greater will be the chances of learner uptake.

Another benefit relates, at least with German, French, Spanish and Italian learning, to the acquisition of another word-class: prepositions. Very often A-level students find it hard to select the correct preposition to use before infinitives. Prepositions not being semantically salient features, they require, in order to be effectively learnt, much more emphasis than teachers usually give them. I believe that, if verbs were given more emphasis the prepositions they usually collocate with, will be acquired more effectively and effortlessly (sparing the students the hassle of having to look them up incessantly in dictionaries).

A greater benefit of emphasizing a more verb-based instructional input refers to the greater power to access more complex texts. Currently, most GCSE level reading and listening materials tend to be relatively poor in terms of variety of verbs – certainly poorer than authentic target language materials. Thus, course-book /materials writers are sometimes forced to ‘doctor’ authentic texts to simplify them or to create noun-ridden texts with very few unfamiliar verbs (often translated on margin) in order to facilitate comprehension. A wider repertoire of verbs may allow foreign language students not only to produce more complex output, but also to access genuinely authentic material in the target language with positive wash-back effect on learning.

The greatest benefit of learning more verbs, however, relates to another aspect of verb acquisition: the mastery of conjugations and tenses. Giving more emphasis to the learning of the meaning of verbs may also result in the learners electing to use them more often in their output, thereby increasing the chances of receiving positive/negative feedback on their correct use (i.e. verb ending is wrong); the greater exposure to such feedback may increase their focus on verb endings and their declarative knowledge of verb inflections. Moreover – to go back to the point made in the previous paragraph – being able to access more complex texts will also mean greater exposure to more complex use of verbs, tenses and moods; this may bring about improvements in their own mastery of verbs, tenses and moods, especially if teachers exploit the texts effectively in the pre-reading/-listening phases.

The Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board seems to have acknowledged the need for more verb-based instruction in their new IGCSE syllabus. In order to obtain full score in one of the essay-writing assessment traits, the candidate now needs to produce 18 different verb forms correctly (out of 140 words). This means that only the first instance of a given verb is counted each time; e.g. if the learner writes ‘je fais’ three times, will only score one tick , whereas until last year, it would have scored three. A sign that CIE acknowledges the importance of verbs as determinant of higher proficiency? I think so.

And what about adjectives? I think adjectives get more emphasis than verbs, although not as much as they deserve. Mainly because physical and character description is a topic which receives a lot of emphasis since the very beginning of level of language instruction, in England. Moreover, the National Curriculum made it compulsory to deploy adjectives in order to attain the old Level 4. However, in the realm of adjectives, too, one cannot help notice the narrowness of scope of the adjective pool taught in British course-books. The most highly downloaded of the worksheets I have uploaded on the TES connect website (https://www.tes.co.uk/member/gianfrancoconti1966 ) and the most visited pages on my website (www.language-gym.com , the ‘work-outs’ section) are the ones dealing with adjectives, a sign that teachers do feel straight-jacketed by the textbook in use.

What is the way forward? The implications for teaching and learning are obvious:

  • Course-books and teacher should place much more emphasis than they currently do on verbs in terms of the comprehensible input they provide and of the output they intend to elicit from students.
  • Verbs (as in: their meaning) should be explicitly taught and practised extensively across all topics, as often as possible, not necessarily in their full conjugations (although it would desirable). The remark made by some colleagues that it is difficult to find visual stimuli to associate to all verbs when presenting them is not necessarily true. The verb trainer section of language-gym.com demonstrates that this is not the case.
  • Listening and reading comprehension activities should be based on texts containing as wide a range of verbs as possible. The use of parallel texts of the likes found on http://www.frenchteacher.net can be very helpful in this, respect, too. Many of the activities on www.textivate.com provide great practice, too.
  • Verbs should not be taught as discrete units only; their use should be modelled through as wide as possible a range of contexts. This does not mean simply teaching them as part of unanalyzed lexical chunks; learners need to learn how to use the verbs flexibly across contexts.
  • When the students are developmentally ready, students should receive practice in conjugating verbs through a mix of activities involving online self-marking online conjugators (e.g. language-gym.com/verb-trainer or www.conjuguemos.com ) ; gap-activities / translations (scores of these can be found on www.tes.co.uk or on the excellent www.frenchteacher.net )
  • Adjectives and function words (e.g. prepositions and adverbs) should receive more emphasis and be extensively recycled, too.

In conclusion, nouns seem to dominate a lot of foreign language learning. Mainly I suspect, because they play a crucial role in the comprehension of input and in communication. But verbs are equally important; exactly as it happens in first language acquisition, a rich and accurate deployment of verbs is a marker of higher proficiency and allows learners to engage with more complex texts and to produce higher level language. The recommendations I put forward above are based on common sense and on my experience as a teacher and do benefit learners, especially in the long –term. After all, much of the post-GCSE gaps that teachers have to bridge at A-level does relate to a great extent to the curriculum deficits highlighted in this article.