Adventures in my classroom – getting them to speak in the target language 

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As an MFL teacher who loves their job, and the students and who tries to incorporate fun in the classroom I always struggle when students suddenly are reluctant to speak. Honestly just when they are producing some beautifully creative and fun constructions some students seem to want to refuse to speak and develop their target language usage. I find this really rather frustrating and I’m not prepared to let them get away with refusing. 

There has been a lot of discussion recently in school and in the Twittersphere about the validity of teachers using the target language whilst gesticulating (madly) in support and is this worthwhile. I took some time and questioned this and concluded that of course it is! If we don’t model the language, the accent or the pronunciation for our learners how on earth can we demand they use it or feel confident using it?! I’m all for target language usage as I love the idea of speaking in another language to a native speaker. Nothing has brought me greater joy and the feeling of utter triumph that native French, German, Spanish or Russian speakers who could understand what I was saying and responding without a blank look upon their faces! Communicating effectively and with confidence, despite language errors is what learning a language is all about for me. It was, in that very first French lesson I had many years ago, and still is extremely important to me. And that is one of the reasons why target language usage is absolutely required by MFL teachers in classrooms to ensure that we are modelling usage and paving a way to create confident and competent learners who can speak! With this in mind I should say that target language should always be used except for when teaching grammar because more often than not we, like I am sure many other MFL depts., find ourselves reminding students of the grammatical terminology and concept in English to ensure a secure foundation of understanding on which we can then build upon in the target language.

One of the strategies we use across our MFL team is the use of talking chips, the Kagan strategy. This can be applied to any group, any year and any subject and encourages thoughtful and interesting responses, which for us, are in the target language. I went to a well known superstore (that usually has piles of catalogues outside and is famous for its small blue pens, I am sure you know the one) and purchased a poker set. Not to play poker in my classroom you understand, but to find a competitive and kinaesthetic visual reward that students could stack, collect and feel proud of. My set cost less than £10 though I am aware of teachers who have designed and created wondrous personalised chips and coins whereas others have opted for pirate treasure from a well known toy store.  Here are some of the ways that talking chips have had a huge impact in our MFL classrooms. I hope you can trial some of these strategies in your learning spaces and have as much fun as we have had as well as see the huge impact it can have in getting students of all ages and abilities to speak with consideration and increasing confidence. The following names are my nicknames for the different uses of talking chips that I use with my students.

  • Stack ’em high!

When students make a verbal contribution that contains key elements (that you have pre-determined and have informed them of prior to or at the start of the activity) simply reward them with a chip. I tend to use the same colour and choose another colour if there is a bonus element. For example this could be students using opinions and reasons in a sentence in the target language. If they give additional details verbally or use interesting connectives then I would reward these extra elements with a different coloured chip. Or using two tenses in a phrases the second tense is an embellishment so bonus reward. 

Students absolutely love this and enjoy the challenge of using a variety of interesting language constructions in order to gain additional chips. It is so motivating that students fall over themselves to volunteer and spend additional time at home researching new and interesting language that will, and frequently does, blow me away! I have had students begging to use talking chips as they have created something that they want to share with the class. An additional plus of this is that I can see visually exactly who has contributed and who hasn’t without remembering to write names on boards potentially embarrassing ones that haven’t yet. We all try to be aware and notice but this is an easy and visual way to keep track. 

  • Stop and Think!

We all have those students in our classes who are the most vocal and who will speak without thinking or might just speak over others because they are fizzing with ideas to share and this way of using talking chips will put almost a stop to this disruption allowing others, perhaps the less reticent in our classes, to contribute without being talked over. Issue chips at the start of the lesson as you meet, greet and smile the class but only to a selection of students who always contribute in the lesson. We have hour lessons so depending on the speaking activities planned for the lesson I might issue 2-4. My reason for doing this? Simply to stop the more confident vocally to ‘overcontribute’. This may sound daft but we all know through knowing the individuals in our classes and tracking their individual learning journeys that there are those quieter, more considered thinkers, who will happily allow the ‘louder ‘students to take their place and there are others who just won’t thrust their hands up to volunteer! 

The chips allows students to spend a chip everytime they make a contribution in the target language. Even members of my team thought this wouldn’t work but I can assure you it does. Incredibly it helps the student to consider their contribution rather than ‘blurting it out’. Spending a chip is a costly affair but when they do spend them I have found the quality and depth of response can be stunning as they have thought extremely carefully about what exactly they want to share which of course helps them as reflective learners as well as benefitting their peers.

I’ll be honest when I spoke to students launching this they weren’t at all impressed. It’s fair to say they looked slightly horrified, perhaps they thought I was being ungrateful, but quickly it has become a brilliant tool. One that is highly valued not only by MFL teachers but by the students who receive the chips. Most of them have seen this as a challenge to be even more creative in the target language and to ‘knock my socks off’ which can only be a plus as more interesting and challenging language are used in the classroom thus benefitting all of us!

  • Get ’em spent!

As well as the vocal students who always want to contribute we have those that will try to hide, this strategy is for these learners, the lovely hardworking but slightly reticent linguists who are maybe fearful of speaking and need the practice and encouragement to just go for it!

I issue red chips to chosen students as they enter the room I might issue three chips to them and their mission is to spend them all in the lesson. Students can choose when but they can only spend the chips when they speak in the target language using key elements in an interesting construction, it can’t be spent by asking me a question or for assistance in the target language. Students know what I expect from them and do push themselves to spent their chips. 

You might be thinking that you have some students who would refuse to speak therefore not spend their chips but when good quality constructions and sentences are created and shared by their peers these are rewarded with other chips so encouraging students to understand that if they spend the red chips they do receive praise as other students do in the class.

What do I do if students have any unspent chips at the end of the lesson? Well I simply add it to their total for next lesson and insist they speak, some students have tried this and it just means that the next lesson they have to do more speaking. Honestly this strategy works brilliantly with students who you think it wouldn’t. It’s very motivational and helps to change mindsets about speaking. It has had a huge impact in my classroom with some very challenging students to the point when the come to class and they see me greeting them with red chips in my hand some students have said ‘but I’ve been speaking loads Miss, I’ll do loads more today just to show you I don’t need those anymore’ And do you know what, they are absolutely right I don’t need to issue them. Simply seeing the red chips is motivating enough! Brilliant! 

  • Two chances

This strategy was developed by a fabulous teacher in my team with a particularly challenging class she had the pleasure of. Two chips are issued to each student as they are greeted with smiles at the door. These chips are used differently so might be a different colour or style to any other chips used. My brilliant colleague uses golden pirate coins from a toy store. This one class had a poor habit of calling out questions in English and despite being in KS3 it is a habit we wanted to break so she developed two chances. If students want to ask a question in English they can but they must spend a chip or coin meaning that each student can only ask two questions in English in one lesson. It’s that easy.

This has had a huge impact upon students listening skills, noise level in the classroom and their behaviour. It has been really interesting to see this strategy at work as it has forced students to settle more quickly, creating a focussed learning environment where target language is used and English is limited. It won’t work for all classes you might think but it certainly worked for this very challenging class superbly so it is definitely worth a try if this is an issue for you or a colleague you know.

Talking chips is a Kagan cooperative learning strategy, the introduction of which as had a huge impact upon getting our learners to speak more French and Spanish, the issue isn’t producing it perfectly but we see it as our responsibility to give as many opportunities as possible to create stimulating climates and chances where it can be used and developed. 

If you are interesting in finding out more about Kagan strategies follow @t2tuk or look at the Kagan UK website http://www.T2TUK.co.uk 

  Image thanks to Flickr.com

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