Virtual teaching in MFL
As we all get used to remote teaching, I have become really interested in how teachers in different subjects are approaching things. As identified in the recent EEF remote learning evidence review, one of they five key findings was that for remote teaching to be effective, different approaches to remote teaching are required for different subjects. This is perhaps self evident, but I find it really valuable to unpick where subjects are different in terms of the content and skills and hence what that implies for our pedagogy. I was fortunate to be able to interview David Williams, our Director for Learning for MFL to see how he is using the Google platform to best support his language students. In particular, we discussed the use of Google Meet.
How have you been using Google Meet in your teaching?
Where I have used Google Meet for teaching classes, I have used two main approaches, with my approach having changed already. Initially I used it for the first part of the lesson in order to explain the task for that particular lesson, dealing with any initial queries, giving guidance on success criteria and establishing expectations for the completion of work, before setting students off to complete the tasks. This fitted well with our faculty approach of consolidating content and revising in the two weeks prior to Easter to allow the focus to be more on building confidence with the new method of teaching rather than on the content. This was as much for staff as for students! I did always keep the Meet open during these lessons, but I frequently found that students logged out as soon as I set them off on the lesson tasks.
I have now moved to a clear division between ‘live’ lessons on Google Meet and lessons in which I just set tasks for students to complete. By using Google Meet for whole lessons, a key priority has been judging levels of engagement and even checking that students are still listening!
The hardest skill in MFL to maintain over remote learning is speaking. Google Meet has helped to some extent with this for smaller classes as it has been possible to invite three or four students at a time to turn on their mic and have a small speaking session with these students. At this point, I ask all other students to turn off their sound so those speaking don’t feel that they are presenting to all their classmates. I’ve also used Vocaroo to enable students to submit short speaking answers, which has proved a highly useful tool.
How and why have you altered your use of the chat function?
I have moved from using the chat function essentially as a tool for checking that students are still there (logging into the Meet with a second device to view the meet as a participant has also helped with this!) into a really useful mechanism for inviting student responses and providing the immediate feedback and error correction that is a mainstay of traditional MFL lessons. The chat function has essentially become a ‘mini-whiteboard’ tool for me. Although there are many other options available for this purpose that may offer more functionality, the main benefit of the Meet chat function is that it’s all in one place. Students can see any information I want to present, hear my prompts and type their responses all in the Google Meet window.
Another key change in my use of the chat function has been to delay students from sending responses until I prompt them to post their answer. Initially, when posing a question, the fastest student would put their answer in the chat, leaving the others no thinking time of their own. Students can begin writing an answer as soon as it is posed, but by simply delaying their response being posted all students can have the thinking time necessary to produce an independent answer. When students do post, the effect is a ‘cascade’ of responses which, despite appearing quickly, are easy to scan for correct or incorrect responses, good answers that can be highlighted to the rest of the class and to get a sense of common mistakes. Another benefit is that you can judge how challenging the class has generally found a question or short task. If all answers appear immediately when students are prompted, it implies they have found the task easy to complete, whereas a trickle of responses, even having been given thinking time, implies that they have had to work harder to complete the task and that this question or topic area may not be as familiar to them.
In an MFL context, I have already used the chat function for a wide range of tasks, from simple vocab retrieval practice to translations and even short independent writing tasks. Overall, although it can never replace the ‘feel’ for how a class is responding to your input in the physical classroom, I have found that this approach has gone some way to bridging the gap that the remote teaching has established between me and the students I teach.
There are still some negatives to this approach, however. It is not possible to check that all students are participating, although you can see if a significant number have not contributed. There is also the possibility for students to wait for responses to appear before quickly typing one of these as their own. Finally, the chat function is a temporary portal that disappears at the end of the meet. Having said this, so are physical mini-whiteboards – and with the chat function it is possible for students to copy their own answers and even the contributions of others to permanent document if this is deemed beneficial.
What tip would you offer to other language teachers who are teaching virtually?
In general, I would advise language teachers who are teaching virtually to focus on three or four tools that you feel confident with and build your lessons around these. Students can sometimes use the fact that they are working in a foreign language as a barrier to completing tasks, so by building familiarity with the way in which lessons are delivered, students can focus on the content rather than how to use the remote learning tools.
I would also encourage language teachers to be comfortable in allowing students time to learn new material independently, even within a ‘live’ lesson. In typical language lessons, the most common approach is input, practice then production. In the physical classroom, this practice takes many forms, from choral repetition, retrieval practice, games and many others. In remote teaching, many of these are not possible, so we need something to bridge this gap. I have found Quizlet to be particularly useful here, as you can easily create bespoke sets of vocabulary to match your input for the lesson. Even if students are only given 10 minutes to learn or even familiarise themselves with new vocabulary or content, their eventual production of language in a lesson is of a higher quality. They will also then have this resource to use after the lesson if they want or are directed to.
Finally, I would ensure that, for the majority of resources you use, there is a tangible resource that can be provided for students further down the line when we return to some kind of normality. If, upon returning to more routine teaching, you can provide students with a set of key documents (vocab lists, sentence builders, model texts etc.) that broadly mirror the material they have been working on remotely, it will be easier to hold them to account over what they are expected to have learnt. Conversely, if they have completed a wide range of online activities, but there is no record of the exact material or vocabulary they have covered, it will be hard to consolidate their understanding at a later date. In this regard, less is probably more, in that I would rather my students had a better grasp of less content than we would normally cover in this period than a vague awareness of a wide range of different material.