Thursday, 26 November 2020

Teaching Literature: a holistic approach

In this post I would like to discuss my approach to teaching literature at ALevel. As a department we decided to teach a film in Y12, in our case, El Laberinto del Fauno and a text in Y13, La Casa de Bernarda Alba. We chose this text because the themes portrayed in it are easy to understand and still relevant nowadays, so it is easy for students to relate to. 

When  choosing a text it is important to choose something that you feel comfortable with but, a text that has quite a lot of resources available for you to cover it, confidently, and which is not too long for students to read! 

Similarly, reading the text in class, aloud, is extremely powerful! As we chose a play, students play the different roles while reading during the lesson, which makes the reading interactive, while getting lots of oral practice! 

I also advocate for a bilingual edition, if available. When tackling a literary text, there will be lots of new vocabulary and having a page, translated into English by the side, saves valuable time while empowering students to learn new vocabulary.

A holistic approach versus a linear approach

In  a linear, traditional approach, students would read the text and then, the teacher will teach, via key passages, worksheets featuring short summaries and reading comprehension tasks,  the different aspects of the play. In a normal sequence that would be: Historical Context, Main themes, Literary Figures, Characters, Structure, Style, Message etc.. Although this approach is perfectly valid, I like to use it, only, at the end of the learning process. 

At the beginning, I want my students to have a holistic approach to the text, which I believe, makes them understand the literary work much more thoroughly and puts them right in the centre of the learning process!

In a holistic approach, students would also read the text in the classroom and prompted by the teacher, they will analyse the play, page by page, orally, in a class discussion.  

For this to happen, these are the type of questions I would ask them: 

What do you think this means? What does this represent? Why is this written the way it is? Which theme can we see here? What does this say about this character? How is the tension achieved? etc.. 

Students will take notes, highlight their text, look at the translation by the side, if needed, and will start creating Flashcards with our class discussions, incorporating key quotes/references to the text to back up their ideas. 

Why is this holistic? 

Because we study many themes at once as they keep appearing throughout the play. Students start creating a corpus of flashcards for the different elements of the play, which may appear at once and certainly not in a linear way!   From lesson one, students create their own study guide in the shape of flashcards. Students tend to make these flashcards for homework after key ideas have been discussed during lessons. By the time we finish reading and analysing the book, students have created themselves, a valuable, learning document full of thorough analysis and quotes! These lessons are carried out mainly in Spanish with the support of English, when needed. We also use mini whiteboards to put difficult ideas into Spanish. Students take photos of the ideas in their mini whiteboards, and will incorporate such information to their flashcards as necessary. Up to this point, we do not make use of any specific resources, just the book!

After this process, we study the text again, in the linear more traditional way! At this point, students bring their flashcards to lessons and using these, they lead the linear discussions: talking about and analysing the different traditional topics, guided by me, of course! At this stage we start using other external resources, such as the Zig-Zag series or the Hodder/Oxford Literature Guides as well any materials online. 

It is at this point that students start writing essays. 

This approach allows students to be the centre of the learning process, and be an active part of the lessons:

  • They read the text
  • They come with the ideas through discussions and my support, of course!
  • They create their own study guide, through flashcards!
  • They can, quite successfully, analyse the different themes of the play, which we study in the traditional approach to literature in a second round!  By this point, students have become the experts!
It takes me nearly a whole term, three lessons per week, to study the text, holistically and linearly. We always do this in the Autumn Term and we use the Lent Term to carry out timed writing sessions every other week. 

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Language Show 2020 Presentations and Webinars

Thank you so much for the feedback I received today from both of my webinars in the Language Show. It has been amazing to read your comments, contributions and ideas! We learn from each other.

As promised the Webinars presentations and Videos are below.

Motivation and engagement in the MFL classroom: let's play, let's speak!


Stickability beyond the classroom: delivering high impact lessons via the use of IT tools.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

How to Blend Learning?

Blended learning, we have definitely heard this term over and over again since the first lockdown when schools were shut, as the future of education. 

What is Blended Learning?

The way I see it, Blended Learning means that students learn through the combination of face-to-face and on-line teaching methods, all blended into one, to maximise their learning experience. In other words, learning occurs via traditional methods, such as worksheets, Question and Answer sessions, activities via a textbook or a worksheet, combined with the use of IT tools which, via careful planning, help students in their learning journey. 

When I think about Blended Learning, I think about the different spaces where learning takes place and the different ways in which such learning can occur. 

Why different places for learning?

Students do not just learn in the classroom, they may learn on the bus, at home in their bedroom or during a school trip. They can access knowledge from any space, as long as they are doing a learning activity, like the school trip example, or, most importantly, have a device from which to carry out learning! That's why when blending learning, I think carefully, where students can access different activities.

Why different ways of learning?

Practice is key in learning and making progress. However it can be tedious to do such practice in just one way, say via worksheets using paper and a pen. This can be the case for young learners, who are bombarded with stimuli and immediate feedback experiences via technology at all times: you like a series, you binge it and watch it all! Accessing information and learning via videos, online images or collaborative tools can be extremely engaging and productive.

Blended Learning, allows me to take the learning experience outside the classroom if and when students or I choose to do so and teach in many different ways, which in the process, allows me to revisit content over and over again from different angles, without a feeling of repetition or dejá vu. This experience, in exchange, engages my students, makes them more independent, more involved in their learning process and, ultimately, makes their learning more in tune with their 21st century experience.

How to Blend Learning?

Planning a sequence of lessons:

  • First of all, I  would advise to have a vision of what you would like your students to achieve by the end of series of lessons and move backwards from there. For example, to be able to talk about their holidays last year.  
  • Secondly, think about what elements do your learners need to get there? This means structures, including vocabulary and grammar. A Sentence Builder with the potential sentences that students should be producing/understanding by the end of your sequence of lessons can be extremely powerful or just a model text. 
  • Finally, think about how are we going to take them there? What steps do we need to plan for the students to practise and embed our planned structures? It is, in this final step where we can blend learning!
Elements for blending learning

  • Use an online platform with your students so that you can share your planned activities, aka, learning steps, with them: Google Classroom, Firefly, Onenote/Classnote, Teams are the most common platforms, I believe, schools are using. 
  • Plan the activities for your lessons and think, at each stage, which and how IT tools can assist you and your students to enhance the learning experience. For this I have a list of potential IT tools that I could use at any stage. You do not need to use them all but it is important that you are aware of them.

In my case my Blended Learning IT tools ready at my disposal are these:

In the centre I have Microsoft 365 as the core of my blended learning classroom:
Teams (for remote teaching)
These main apps are supported by Firefly (our School Virtual Learning Platform) which I use for online libraries for my students, not class specific, and Smartboard Software for the delivery of in-class lessons.

Finally there is a wide range of apps and tools that I can use for my teaching and students' learning: 
LearningApps, Quizlet, Wheel of Names, Flippity, Loom, Peardeck, Memrise, Genially, Quizizz, Edpuzzle, Padlet, Canva, Mentimeter, Wooclap, ClassroomScreen,Thinglink or Wordwall.

For ideas on how the different tools can support Sentence Builders and the learning experience, click on the following post.  
For How to videos on how to use some of the apps above, click on the following post.

I use, Onenote (Class Notebook) to share the links to these online activities with my students, who need to bring their own device to my lessons. I share my lessons with students weekly. Consequently, students have access, via Onenote, to all worksheets we work with during lessons and to links which will take them to different interactive activities which need to be carried out during lessons or at home, for reinforcement, or as part of homework. 
A normal set of lessons (3 in this case) looks like the example below on Onenote. As you can see there are classic activities such as Battleships (which I could photocopy if I want to) but also links to other interactive activities like Flippity or Wheel of names, to be carried out orally in pairs, or in writing. Reference materials, such as the formation of the past tense in Spanish, are easily shared this way too: 

I teach normally, using my Smartboard, and when prompted by me, students access their Onenote and carry out the online activities with blue links. If using Microsoft apps, such as Word, Forms, Flipgrid, or Genially and Youtube videos, the apps appear automatically embedded on my onenote, which is visually nice! Depending on the activity, students may work on their own, but also in pairs, like in the case below, where Y9 students accessed a Genially interactive game and played in pairs:

Students can also work collaboratively via the Collaboration space on Onenote or a Padlet or Google Document. This is great for brainstorming of ideas on a given topic.

Homework, may include a video, which can be embedded into Onenote, which I have previously recorded with Loom (screencasting) where students need to follow instructions and complete a series of activities directly on Onenote in the box supplied:

Homework can be oral practice, via the Insert Audio function on Onenote, which allows me to carry out a dictation, ask questions which students need to answer, or just repeat after me for pronunciation work. In the example below, students had to click on the Quizizz activity for practice, before listening to my questions which they had to answer using the audio insert on onenote: 

By blending learning and having a platform (Onenote) to share my online activities, as well as worksheets, with my students, I can create Learning Libraries, with resources for specific classes to which students have access at all times, in all spaces.  The resources will also include a wide range of activities using different tools. They are all under Content Library and are classified in different Tabs. See the example below from my Y11 Onenote: 

The way I blend learning is by maximising the use of a wide range of online resources in the classroom, via Onenote.  

Students can access their Onenote, and their interactive personalised activities in lessons but also in any other space (bus, home, library). The online, interactive tasks allow learners to practise key vocabulary and structures (sentence builders) in many different ways and shapes, making the learning experience innovative, catchy, memorable and sticky, just like the different social media platforms, so embedded in our students' lives, do! The difference is, that I use technology not just for entertaining the kids but to enhance their learning experience in all different ways and spaces!

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Motivating students: Rosenshine's principles, not too easy, not too difficult, just right!

Although currently at half-term, I have been inspired, by many social media contributions, to write about motivation in the MFL classroom, a major issue, I believe, for many of us! How can we motivate our students to do well, to become independent learners and embrace the learning of MFL? Specially, at KS4 level leading to KS5? The constrictions of the GCSE syllabus, exam pressures, and harsh marking of papers for languages has, definitely, taken its toll but not everything is grim looking!

At a basic level, there's a lot that MFL teachers can do in everyday lessons, which we may take for granted, that can have a big impact in motivating most of our students. Of course, at a high level, doing project based learning, collaborative work with partner schools, a rich extra-curricular activity programme and opportunities to take languages outside the classroom and raise the profile of MFL, are also important factors. However, in this post I would like to concentrate on the basics: the ingredients for great teaching that help motivate students and take responsibility for their learning.

What motivates students?

In my opinion, is as simple as feeling that they are making progress, which consequently increases their confidence and as a result motivates them to continue doing well to make even more progress. 

As teachers, we have the power to plan and carry out activities aimed to help students to make this progress. For that, we do not need to become over complicated in our teaching, but just reflect on the ingredients of what makes great teaching. Why? 

Because great teaching, where activities are not too easy, neither too high, just right,  will spontaneously make our students make progress, hence, motivating them to do well, to take pride in their learning and to become, ultimately, independent learners (some with big help from us).  This takes me directly to reflect on Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction for great teaching. Principles that we all use, exploit, sometimes, unconsciously, in our lessons.

What makes great teaching?: Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction applied to MFL

1. Modelling

At its most basic level, in MFL this means modelling the structures we want students to master after a sequence of lessons, or a lesson! I do this via Sentence Builders. At a more complex level, this means providing worked out examples of good answers, for example for writing and speaking tasks at GCSE level or Alevel and narrating to students our thought process. Activities that work well at this level and will motivate students from the basics are any Teacher or Student based Reading/ Listening activities based on a give Sentence Builder or Key structures:

  • Put sentences in the right order, read by the teacher (Sentences can be in English or TL on the board)
  • Dictation activities or Delayed Dictation tasks
  • Trapdoor reading activities
  • Reading a sentence, stop and students finish it, this can be done as a whole class, in pairs, with mini whiteboards or orally. Jane Basnett offers an example on how this can be achieved by working with a model paragraph in this post here . A great example of low preparation, high impact activities for students to make progress just in a lesson.
  • Battleships listening/ Reading game activities. 

  • Bad listening: Teacher reads a paragraph of which students have a copy but with key differences that students need to spot.
  • Filling the gaps in response to a paragraph read by the teacher but without gaps! So students need to really listen for detail while listening to and reading their text as they do not have the gaps to write the missing words.
  • Narrow reading/listening type of activities: Spot the difference, completing boxes with key information.
  • Providing example of written or oral tasks and analysing these with students, having a mark scheme with them, to find out why they are good, not so good or outstanding answers: what are the ingredients of a great response?

2. Structured/Guided Practice

This involves, extensive practice of structures, controlled by the teacher, with scaffolds for difficult tasks until these are mastered: the power of overlearning!!! which will increase confidence and will help students make rapid progress, hence, enhancing motivation. If we add a real communication element to the practice process and a game or competitive element, motivation is pretty much guaranteed! 

Similarly, having high expectations is key here too. When I tell my Y8 bottom set students: "this is a GCSE expression that I am confident you can use at this stage now", such as Me gustaría que mi casa tuviera ( I would like that my house had (subjunctive)),  90% of my students learn the structure and use it systematically! 

Always aim a little bit higher! Students, even those in low sets, will make progress as long as they have enough practice to master the content and this is practised periodically and they are not bombarded with many challenging expressions that can result in cognitive overload. Do not make the language over easy, as that can be as much a demotivating factor, as being too difficult and moving too fast! Some students will think, what is the point?, to too easy as well as to too difficult input!

High impact activities at this stage can include:
  • Translating key sentences based on Sentence Builders from English into TL. This can be done in many different ways: via mini-whiteboards led by teacher using any IT tool to provide prompts if wanted, although teachers can just make up sentences on the spot! If IT tools are used, TaskMagic, Wheel of Names and Flippity can be excellent at this stage! Click on a previous post here on how IT tools can assist Sentence Builders practice. If the links of our activities are shared with students, then, they can practice translating sentences in pairs after a whole class practice.
  • One dice, Speak! Based on the popular game One pen, One dice, this is an idea from Vincent Everett: Students work in pairs and are given a dice, student A rolls the dice until they get a 6. Students B needs to make as many sentences from their Sentence Builder as possible until their partner gets the 6 and they swap roles. 
  • Any board game based on translating elements, focussing on a given Sentence Builder or key structures. Genially digital games are brilliant for this at the current situation!

  • Jenga Games where students need to create a sentence before allowed to move a piece.
  • Any information gap activity! where students need to exchange information with a partner. The information would, of course, be based on those key structures we want to practice!
  • Stealing Sentences, a classic from Gianfranco Conti. I like doing it in three levels, so at level three students need to translate the sentences, with support of initials rather than just read them!

  • Translating Pyramids, another classic from Gianfranco Conti.
  • Ping-Pong Translation, as outlined by Gianfranco Conti.
  • Dictogloss, which would include listening, reading, oral and writing on a given text! 

  • LearningApps activities


 3. Checking for understanding: the use of Questions

Questioning is key! and it will help for retrieval practice too while keeping students motivated and alert! A good session of questioning after key, structured practice, or as part of this, is extremely powerful. In other words, questions should be the centre of lessons! Make sure you always reward accurate, correct answers!
Some Questioning techniques that helps students make progress and keep them alert are:
  • Cold calling, not just volunteers!  so no student can relax!
  • No opt-out, if a student does not know the answers, I move to another student and then I come back to student A again.
  • Say it again, better, after a few rounds of questioning: Where do you go on holidays? I come back to the same students and ask them to say again but better, after having heard answers from fellow students!
  • Think, pair, share!  This is great for more open general conversation questions or to practice the photocard part of the exam.
  • Whole class response: Whiteboards!  Many activities of the activities in structured practice can be done this way! 
  • Ask all students: What have you understood? versus Have you understood? Ask students to tell you exactly what they got from the lesson and reteach if necessary any gaps in subsequent lessons.  This is great as a plenary!

4. Retrieval Practice: Interleaving and reviewing material

This is extremely important in languages! Students must be given opportunities to revisit the material over and over again, this is critical in the case of grammatical structures but also with high impact expressions that can be used in many different topics and which should be embedded quickly in the students' mastered lexicon corpus. Make sure that students obtain a high success rate before moving to another concept! Techniques for retrieval practice:
  • Daily, weekly, monthly review. Great as a starter activity! Ask students to translate sentences from last lesson, last week's lesson but also from last month! As time progresses, from last half-term or even last year. Reward students who succeed in this. To do this, the activities from Structured Practice are great as we can always incorporate content from last week, last month etc.. mixed up with new topics. Interleaving is key here. 
  • Involve everyone! Whiteboards are ideal for this but also LearningApps activities and Quizizz quizes.
  • Vary the way retrieval practice is carried out: Teacher led, but also via self-quizzing (quizizz , LearningApss and Quizlet are great for this). Use simple translation tasks, but also open responses tests (Quizizz allows you to do this). 
  • Creating a knowledge map starting from some key words.
  • Train students to be proactive at this! Self-testing. If you have a bank of resources available to students for each topic, say, Quizizz activities, LearningApss or Quizlet courses, you can prepare revision schedules for students to start with and encourage them to modify your schedule or create their own one based on their own needs. Click here for a post on how Padlet can assist you to create such schedules!

5. Gradual Mastery of concepts: development of Fluency

Gradually, the scaffolding and support that we give students via the structured practice can be removed so students start producing language fluently, on their own, without having the Sentence Builders in front of them or having to be given model answers to be translated from English to TL. For students to be successful at this stage, they need to be engaged in the independent practice of structures: having a bank of self-quizzes for students to work independently, as explained above is crucial. When students manage to reach this stage, even at a basic level, their confidence suddenly plummets, and, with that, their motivation too. Good activities at this stage are:
  • Speed dating activities where students formulate questions to each other for 5 minutes to move to another couple.
  • Piedra, papel, tijera (stone, paper, scissors). Two students play together and whoever wins asks a question to their partner who needs to answer in the TL. Another variant: the winner speaks for a given time on a particular topic, using key words, as support, from the board.
  • The Flippity Random Picker option, with key vocabulary instead of names! can be very useful here. The groups of 2,3,4 etc. (increasing difficulty as the number goes up) will generate groups of 2,3,4 etc.. words. Students can be asked to say or write a sentence incorporating all the vocabulary in each group. Below there is an example with 4 groups of 2 words each. Students would have to say or write 4 sentences using the words in each group.

  • Creative written tasks via Padlet, so students can see each other's contributions and learn from one another. 
  • Drama oral activities. Click here for a wide range of drama activities to be used in MFL lessons  designed by Creative Multilingualism. 
  • Creative oral tasks via videos, short films, short stories, comics created by students
  • All board games discussed above but now, with an open ended response. This is great to practice the General Conversation questions. 
I believe that by creating memorable, sticking lessons, with high expectations and lots of retrieval practice to allow student to master content, students make natural progress, which in return will make them feel confident, which contributes to becoming motivated! 

How do we motivate students? By delivering great lessons, having high expectations, even for low ability groups, providing learners with all the ingredients they need to make progress, so they believe in themselves and find MFL achievable! Creating the right balance of not too difficult neither too easy! JUST RIGHT.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Padlet: The virtual revision assistant!

 As we approach the half-term and the Christmas break will be soon under the corner, I have decided to write about a great use of Padlet to help students, especially Y11s, to revise content.  Padlet is a great tool! It is free up to three Padlets but I think it is worth getting an account for a whole department to use. Padlet will become our students' personal digital assistant for their GCSE course revision!

I use Padlet quite a lot at three levels:

1. For collaborative work with our international links. If you want students to introduce themselves, produce any presentation for their partners, or just show the results of a common project you have been working on, Padlet is brilliant! You set up the Padlet and students from different countries can contribute and comment on each other's work easily and via any format: video, text, audio, presentation or link to anything really!  See example below from our Erasmus project and how we used Padlet for students to identify something about their heritage that made them who they were.

Made with Padlet
2.For collaborative work among students in my class.  Students can use Padlet to display their work, again in any format. This is particularly useful in the last stage of learning, when students have really embedded their linguistic knowledge and can use it creatively to produce something of their own.

Made with Padlet

3.As a virtual assistant Schedule
. This is the use, I believe, that can be extremely powerful to develop independent learning skills in the students. 


Retrieval practice is essential for language acquisition but many of my students, especially those in lower sets, find it extremely difficult to create their own revision schedule when exams approach. Most of them will create a revision timetable for all subjects. They would allocate an hour or two to MFL but they often get overwhelmed with what and how to revise, after all for the GCSE exam there are four skills to practise!

To help them with this task, three years ago, after being inspired by Ceri Anwen in the TILT London Conference,  I created two Revision Schedules for my Y11s using Padlet: One in preparation for the mocks after Christmas and a second one for the Easter vacation in preparation for their oral examination.  Students did not have to stick to the schedule 100% but it gave them something concrete and realistic on what to start their revision work. 

I am not going to lie some students did not use it at all! But many did and with some tweaks, as they thought my programme had been quite unrealistic, they stuck to this revision programme. They and their parents found it extremely useful, especially the weakest ones.  

These are the schedules:

Made with Padlet

Made with Padlet

I repeated the process the following two years, with similar results. Nevertheless, the schedule was ambitious and I could understand that could put some of my learners off, who may find the whole experience unachievable and impossible!  

However, the GCSE content is the content! At this stage I had already started using Sentence Builders with low ability students at KS4 and had created my own Quizlets, to which they had direct access to.  So, I thought that rather than waiting to Christmas and Easter, when students had to revise for 10 more subjects and thinking of the Retrieval Practice concept, I would start the official revision at the October Half-Term with my Y11s.  

The programme would consist of 4 weeks: 
  • 2 weeks of scheduled 30 minutes vocabulary learning during our 2 weeks' break, we are lucky to have a two weeks' half term in October.
  • 2 weeks of own time, when students would dedicate 20 minutes to revise the topics covered since Y10, making the whole retrieval practice process 4 weeks long.
This is the schedule which will be released to them next week:

Made with Padlet
This schedule focuses mainly on productive skills: knowing the different Sentence Builders studied since Y10 extremely well, so that students can carry out the writing tasks at the GCSE exam.


I will prepare another Christmas revision schedule but because we have started the revision earlier, I hope the Sentence Builders knowledge will be much better embedded in the students' brains by then!

I hope this will be the case, as this schedule will be supported by a timed writing task, where students will need to put the Sentence Builders into practice, every two weeks.

I will tweak the Christmas Padlet schedule above, which I have used for the last three years, so it is not so overwhelming and will include more receptive vocabulary practice, linked to the GCSE AQA syllabus in Quizlet, supported by periodical practice question papers created by Theme, using Exampro.  Exampro is great for this, because it allows you to create tests to be carried out online, with immediate feedback for students,  so perfect combination with Padlet and marking free!

I also think this model can be transferred to Y10 as from Christmas.  In fact, I will create another schedule for them, very light as the topics covered by Christmas in Y10 will be only 2! but which will reinforce the idea of retrieval practice and, hopefully, will create a strong foundation step for students' language learning as they progress in their GCSE course. 

This is my plan for GCSE, starting this Y10

  1. Padlet revision schedule for Christmas, based on Tourism and School/Studies (including productive Sentence Builders Quizlet courses)
  2. Padlet revision schedule for Easter, based on Tourism, School/Studies, Relationships and Technology (including productive Sentence Builders, AQA receptive vocabulary Quizlet courses and practice Exampro tasks)
  3. Padlet revision schedule for Summer, based on Tourism, School/Studies, Relationships, Technology and Free Time (including productive  and receptive skills)
  4. Padlet revision schedule for October Half-term in Y11, based on Tourism, School/studies, Relationships, Technology, Free time and Work. (Like the one above)
  5. Padlet revision schedule for Christmas in Y11, based on Tourism, School/studies, Relationships, Technology, Free Time, Work, Area where I live and Festivals (including some productive but mainly receptive vocabulary and practice Exampro tasks)
  6. Padlet revision schedule for Easter in Y11, based on all GCSE topics (including, mainly productive skills as orals would normally take place after Easter, but some receptive vocabulary and practice Exampro tasks too)
These 6 revision schedules together with work in lessons and time writing opportunities as from October in Y11, I hope will form a robust foundation for students to succeed at GCSE!!!

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Tackling Writing, the interwoven skill: from KS3 to the GCSE exam

On this post I am going to focus on the skill of writing and how to develop accuracy as well as content and rich language. All key elements of the GCSE writing mark scheme. 

Writing is even more important this year as the oral exam, as such, is not going to take place, so on its own, this skill will hold 33% of the total GCSE mark.

Writing is intrinsically linked to accuracy, use of grammar and translation skills. Writing can support oral skills beautifully, as the content is the same for both exams. This is even more the case in Spanish and German as they are phonetic languages, so both skills truly correlate. Writing is also core for retrieval practice and a key tool to memorise vocabulary in many students. In other words, writing is the interwoven skill which underpins many others!

Below you can find some of my favourite techniques to practise writing and tackle accuracy and rich vocabulary use as from Y7!

Writing as a stickability, learning tool!

Any structure or key vocabulary that we want our students to embed in their long term memory, can be practised via writing. After introducing Sentence Builders, doing listening and reading tasks, before moving to controlled production via oral activities, I always plan writing tasks to help my students memorise key structures. 

1. Writing short sentences with mini whiteboards via Dictations

This technique is great for modelling and extremely powerful to practise key structures from current and previous topics. It means modelling via listening and writing at its best! Dictations are also great to train students' brain to recognise the link between phonemes and graphemes. As a teacher, in its simplest form,  I dictate  a sentence in Spanish and students write it down using mini whiteboards. Delayed Dictation is great here too for memory retention! Dictation in pairs works great too. 

2.Writing short sentences with mini whiteboards via short translations.

Same as above but I say sentences in English, based on our SBs, and students translate them into Spanish. Students get immediate feedback and the activity can lead to meta linguistic discussions with students, which they love: why this verb must end in a and not ar? Why la gasolina es caro would be wrong? How would we say it makes us feel good if we know me hace sentir bien means it makes me feel good?

To make it more interactive, I use small incentives: every three correct translations students get a sticker. Students keep a tally in their Onenotes and 15 stickers equals an Alpha. (Our school reward system). 

To make the process even more fun, I use taskmagic flashcards with pre thought key sentences showing initials in Spanish for support for less able students. 

Also, wheel of names works fantastically well this way and adds to the unpredictability aspect. I spin the wheels and students need to translate the sentence that both wheels show in English.

The randomiser activity in Flippity is also an invaluable tool for this technique. I click on the lever and students translate, using their mini whiteboards, the combinations showing. Vincent Everett and Mike Elliot use the randomiser for reading and oral practice too, in combination with Flipgrid. 

After one lesson practising controlled writing in this way we move to controlled oral practice using the same sentences but now to be carried out orally, instead of using mini whiteboards. This helps tremendously with fluency! 

3. The Random Name Picker feature in Flippity 

I have already talked about the Randomiser activity in Flippity. The  Random Name Picker activity is also very powerful if used with key vocab instead of names! You can choose, a spinner (similar to wheel of names) but also Group of two, three, four of five! These modalities create boxes with  two, three, four or five of the structures that you previously inserted. See example below.

As an initial activity, I ask students to write a long sentence using the structures within box 1. To make it more challenging, I ask students to write a paragraph using boxes 1, 2 and 3, in lessons they do this with mini whiteboards. This is a very powerful and fun activity which will test the creativity of students and will move them away from mere translation tasks. As homework, this is also a great task.

4. Writing short sentences and paragraphs via Quizizz

I love Quizizz! It allows me to create my own quizzes and tests for retrieval practice and to practise writing skills! 

The modalities of Fill in the blank, where sentences in English have to be translated into Spanish, with immediate feedback for students and Open Ended, are my favourite! For the Open Ended modality, I write a bullet point in the style of the 90 words GCSE writing exam, I set the quiz for 5 minutes maximum per question, and they write down a paragraph covering the bullet point showing in the question in that time. It looks like this from the student's point of view:

This type of activity is very powerful after carrying out mini whiteboards tasks, and a Fill in the blank quiz. I would expect students to recall information from memory only, to do this. Students know that for each bullet point, the quiz consists of a maximum of 5 bullet points, they need to cover the point, give a justification and an opinion and make reference two at least two tenses. This would have been practised endlessly in my model sentences. 

5. Writing pyramids 

This technique has been inspired by Gianfranco Conti. It can be carried orally or in writing. Students work in pairs with mini whiteboards. I give them two writing pyramids in English, A and B, starting with a structure at the top and finishing with a short paragraph at the bottom of the pyramid. See example below.

Each student also gets their partner’s Spanish version of the pyramid. Student A starts translating the pyramid in their mini whiteboard and student B makes sure it is correct, if a mistake is made, student A must stop and wipe their board. Student B has a go with their pyramid, then, and student A checks that no mistake is made. When a mistake is made, student A starts translating again. Every time a student takes a turn, they must start from the top! This reinforces key structures, grammar and use of accents!

6. Tangled Translations

Students translate a paragraph into Spanish but the original text will be partly in English, partly in Spanish! 

7.  One pen one dice

The classic translation game! Students work in pairs. Student A starts translating a given text while student B, using a digital dice these days, rolls a dice until they get a 6. When they get a , student A must stop translating and student B starts doing it while student A rolls the dice. I tend to do this activity for about 10 minutes for fun and after that I just tell the students they must work on their own and translate the text freely. My experience is that otherwise, pupils may get extremely frustrated and give up!

A link to a digital dice can be found here

I love Vincent Everett suggestion of using this activity for students to make short sentences from their Sentence Builders, orally or in writing. This way, students make as many sentences as possible from a given Sentence Builder sheet, until their partner gets a 6. 

8. Running Dictation

This is a fun dictation activity in pairs! Students work in pairs. Texts in Spanish are placed around the room. Student A runs to their text, reads it, tries to memorise the information and runs to student B to whom they dictate what they memorised. Student B writes the information down. At the end, students check their written version to that of the text. It provides a great model example which can lead to reading and grammatical analysis of the text. 

9. Dictogloss

This is another multi skill-activity, incorporating, listening, reading, speaking and writing. I like doing this activity with two texts A/B. In pairs, students first work through text A and then text B, which are very similar!

1. Student A reads text A and writes a summary in English. Student B reads text B and writes a summary in English too.

2. Student A, using their notes in English must translate the text into Spanish to their partner who listens and transcribes in target language.

3. Student B completes step 2 with Text B

4. Both students compare their transcription with the original texts.  

10. Battleships 

I create a battleships grid which we have previously worked with for listening and speaking. As a writing task, I give students 15 or 20 coordinates and students write the sentences corresponding to these.  B1, B5, C5 etc.. 

Again, an extremely easy and versatile activity which really reinforces the grammatical and vocabulary structures that I want students to focus on. For high ability students, I ask my pupils to extend the sentences.

11. Four boxes

I learned about this activity from FaceBook, sorry as I do not remember from whom, and I love it as it does not require any preparation. I display four boxes in my screen and ask students to translate a given sentence using their mini whiteboards, after all show their mini whiteboards I ask for a volunteer to read their sentence, if it is correct I write their name in one of the boxes. I repeat the process four times, so all four boxes are filled in with a name. The fifth time, the volunteer student needs to choose one name in the box to be kicked out so that their name can be written in box instead. After some time, say 20 minutes, the four names in the four boxes win!  Students love this game and become extremely competitive. It works even better orally!  I use it in conjunction with TaskMagic or Flippity Randomiser. Mind that you need to know your students well and the relationships in the groups must be good. If you have a digital timer that students do not see, it makes the experience unpredictable and more fun. Thanks Vincent Everett for the tip! 

Writing Tasks with Checklists

When handing out a writing task, I always include a check list to help students in the writing process: use reasons, use opinions, use at least three tenses, use key high impact expressions, use vocabulary from past readings and listenings. 

Use of sentence builders and random vocab

These are great for writing and students should know them really well as all of my SBs are linked to a specific quizlet course! However, I also make students create their own quizlet set with random vocab found in listening and reading tasks, which they must learn! 

When carrying out writing tasks, I expect them to use their SBs but also at least three expressions from their own personal random Quizlet. This improves their use of language massively if required to do in all longer Writing tasks!

I also practise this random vocab in conjunction with flippity: create a sentence with box one and two expressions from your random quizlet course. This works really well with high ability students.

Creative and Collaborative writing: Project based tasks

Once students have practised the language in the controlled, production stage of learning, via many translations and small creative paragraphs, they should be ready to write on their own following some guidelines.  At this point, project based tasks to be carried out individually or collaboratively with partners can be very motivating. If these tasks are part of a project with students in another country via eTwinning you have a winner!  For these type of assignments I tend to use Padlet or Google Slides. These projects tend to be carried out towards the end of a topic and are common practice at KS3, unfortunately much more difficult to fit at GCSE level!

1. Y7 Art Project on Miró and Picasso

This project includes Writing and Oral tasks, as well as creating your own Miró styled work of art. For full details and materials for the project, visit my post, The power of Culture, here. Scroll down until you find the Y7 project. 

2. Y8 etwinning project 

Rutas Molonas, a project designed to write about student's own regions.  This is done with our partner schools in France and Spain. Information on the project, can be found in my post, The power of Culture, here. Scroll down until you find the Y8 project.

3. Y9 cinema project

So far we have studied Voces Inocentes but this year we are going to study Coco. We will dedicate the whole Easter term to study different topics through the film with the intention of creating a Coco Film online book display on the film. Watch this space, as I will dedicate a post to the project and all the materials used for its delivery.

4. Y10 exchange experience project

In Y9 and Y10 students are given the opportunity to participate in a exchange. As part of their experience, students, in conjunction with their partners in Spain need to create a blog diary, using Padlet, of their experience there. This is collaborative and creative writing tangled as one and the results can be awesome!

How to tackle the second writing task in the GCSE exam

To prepare my students for that second task, I do all the above activities but also in Y11, every two weeks, we do a Timed Writing Task. Students are presented with a Writing Task sheet, see below.

Writing Task two Titles for GCSE

Every two weeks, for homework, students must prepare a task from the list above, which I select. I start with writing tasks incorporating topics from Y10. Students prepare their writing and during our lesson they write 150 words in 40 minutes from memory, only having the two bullet points in front of them for support. I start this process, every year, after Half-Term in October and we continue it until study leave. It works wonders as we recycle all writing tasks. 

I mark these writings using the AQA GCSE mark scheme. I highlight careless mistakes, which they must correct or add to, if not enough opinions given for example, as part of a second homework. 

Make the link between the General Conversation in the Speaking exam and the Writing exam

If, as part of homework students need to practise their oral questions for the speaking exam, make the next writing linked to the same theme/topic as this oral task. There’s a clear link between both exams and students need to understand such link!

They must realise that by revising potential oral questions for the general conversation they are, in fact, learning potential content for the writing tasks. Understanding this link breaks down the gigantic task of preparing four separate exams and the GCSE preparation, becomes a more topic based exercise: same structures to be used in four different ways! Such concept is also reinforced by using multi skilled activities and the same type tasks to practise different skills, for example Battleships for listening, oral and writing. Students must understand that all skills are interwoven and must be practised interlinked with each other.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

The Power of Feedback: Spinning the plates!

After four weeks of teaching, today, I would like to reflect on feedback and marking, as both are intrinsically linked, although feedback should be provided by other means rather than marking. 

Feedback is key to teaching, in fact, I believe that Teaching is constant Feedback. Feedback is extremely powerful: Hattie's meta-analysis suggests that good feedback can improve the rate of learning in one year by at least 50%. In fact, the most effective learners always long for feedback on how to get better.

Consequently, feedback should not be a mere marking, ticking box exercise done for SLT or Ofsted! Feedback must take place in the classroom to inform both, our students on how to get better and us, teachers, to check understanding and re-explain, re-model etc.. accordingly. In order words, Feedback should have a double purpose: closing the learning gap for students and inform planning for us, the teachers.

What are the best ways to give feedback to students?

Of course, marking students' work will need to be done at some point, but this should be a meaningful task not a ticking exercise imposed by school without clear follow-up and strategy. There are different ways, we can carry out marking and provide effective feedback while reducing workload, these are the strategies I use to make my marking manageable while providing high impact feedback to my students:

1. Focused editing

I do not mark every single mistake. I believe this is useless. It takes me ages to do so and on most occasions students will take just a minute to go over it with no impact whatsoever. What I do is highlight those mistakes that I know they should not have made, careless mistakes I call them. When work is returned, students always spend good 10 minutes (my starter activity) going through the highlighted bits and trying to spot why they are wrong and correct these errors. Similarly, if I noticed a common pattern in all my students, before they start this process, I point out, to the whole class, some of these mistakes so we reflect on why they are wrong and how to correct them. This is an example of how marking serves to both the student, but also informs me to plan subsequently. As a consequence, after marking a particularly piece of work, I can see that more lessons may be needed to practice different Sentence Builders or a grammatical point. 

2. Mark Live

Although this is not always easy to do, every so often, I see students individually over a key piece of writing. This is mostly the case towards the end of a unit. To do this, I put two lessons aside, when students are working individually over listening practice, so that I can go through a key piece of work, oral or written, with each student at a time. This can be extremely powerful but, I am aware that it may not work with the logistics of some classes, because of large numbers, behaviour management issues etc..  While I speak to each student individually, the rest of the students need also to be 100 % focussed on another activity, which is why individual listening practice with their laptops and headphones is the perfect scenario to do this. 

3. Open Gallery where students mark each other's work

This is another great technique to do every so often, which is powerful and alleviates the marking burden in the teacher. For this purpose I use Padlet for writing and Flipgrid for oral assignments. After a topic has been studied, practised and assimilated well, students will carry out a piece of writing or oral presentation in Padlet or Flipgrid. Armed with a marking scheme, which must be very familiar to students, pupils look at each other's work and mark it accordingly to such marking scheme while spotting errors etc.. This technique is powerful because students become increasingly familiar with a mark scheme, enhancing their exam technique, while they are forced to think about common accuracy errors. Similarly, students can see everyone's work which provides a fantastic model to work from and real peer inspiration!

On the other hand, this technique would only work in a class with a good learning environment where students feel safe with each other and are open to constructive peer criticism. That's why, from day one, the culture I instil in my lessons and students is that failing is the first step to success, in other words, only if you struggle learning does take place.  By creating such culture, students become positive towards potential failure and less anxious to have their work scrutinised by a peer member of the class. 

4. Oral feedback 

Along with highlighting careless mistakes, I always give students feedback on something that went really well and two/three wishes or targets to focus on a second piece of work. This can take a lot of time to write in students' books! We use Onenote in my school, which means, that I can insert an oral audio giving specific feedback to the students much, much quicker!  Oral feedback has reduced my marking time by 50%! Students have headphones with them, and as mentioned above, after work is returned, they are given reflection time to go over my feedback and highlighted bits, individually. In fact, students can respond to my feedback with another audio, where they are asked to model some sentences etc...

If you don't use Onenote, Qwiqr is perfect to do this! Basically, using Qwiqr QR stickers, you can give students fast oral, video or photo feedback. Most importantly, students as in with Onenote, can respond to such feedback with another QR sticker, making it the perfect tool for oral modelling tasks too. 

5. Live feedback in action: Spinning the plates

Use your normal lesson activities for constant live feedback, individually or as a class! Do not wait until you mark their work. Make them think on the spot. Keep moving plates spinning at once in your lessons. This can be done individually or collectively:

  • Move around, as much as we can move around in the current climate, and highlight mistakes you see on the go.
  • Point individual students towards a display or a section in their Onenote or exercise/text book
  • Ask students to review a paragraph or sentence
  • Ask key questions (which ending would you use to talk about what your mum does over the holidays?)
  • Show a model
  • Alert the class of common mistakes that you have spotted, re-explain, re-practice, read aloud or show a good piece.
  • Ask students how they are struggling and ask for solutions. 

If working via Onenote, going through students work, can be done from your desk so that you do not need to come near them!

6. Use self-marking tests

When planning homework tasks for classes, I try to do it so that one piece of homework is writing/reading/oral and another a learning task or listening, which I can quickly mark via a Forms test, Quizizz, LearningApps activity or just Quizlet! Students carry out the test or task in lesson time, without support and will get immediate feedback which, they report to me as a percentage. In a less digital way, I carry out classic tests in a lesson which they mark themselves, reporting their score to me. This is extremely effective as I can easily test how well they have learned vocabulary/ grammar while preventing me from taking a test home to mark!


Once feedback has been given, always ask students, in a second homework, maybe a couple of lessons later (interleaving), to carry out the task again, using the comments from their previous draft as a way to improve a subsequent version of their work. 

8. Use of Bitmojis for rewards

During lockdown I started using Bitmojis to reward good work from students. Previously, we used stickers to reward merits/ alphas etc.. according to the school protocol. However, as bitmojis are more personalised, the students preferred them so we have changed the use of old stickers for our bitmojis on Onenote. 

Giving rewards when students excel is another powerful strategy to provide psychological feedback, as students love competitions and are keen to do anything for getting my bitmoji!  This particularly works with disaffected students! By improving in small steps and being rewarded by it, students start believing in themselves and start taking pride in their work, because they feel their efforts are recognised. This culture is intrinsically linked to having high expectations on our students and expect the highest standard of work at all times, regardless of ability!  

Think about the Anchor effect: exposing students to content at a level usually considered above national expectations: at KS3, use of GCSE expressions, at GCSE, use of Alevel work. ANCHOR IN CHALLENGE and REWARD students for it, using your school system when giving FEEDBACK. This will contribute to their Growth Mindset!

By using these 8 techniques, I have witnessed how my students' work, regardless the ability has improved over the years, while my marking load has reduced drastically! FEEDBACK should be the PATH towards INDEPENDENT LEARNING so, it should be MEANINGFUL TO THE STUDENT AND INFORMATIVE TO OUR PLANNING, not a BURDEN imposed by the high spheres! Feedback should not only be present when marking but be embedded in our lessons: spinning the plates!

Teaching Literature: a holistic approach

In this post I would like to discuss my approach to teaching literature at ALevel. As a department we decided to teach a film in Y12, in our...