Hannah Sharma is Assistant Headteacher of a school in Brixton, south London. She undertook this piece of research as Head of Languages in the academic year 2015-16 in response to changes in the assessment regime at GCSE level (the UK school certificate, generally taken at age 16). Her research looked into exploring a list of strategies recommended by Harris and Snow (2004:25) in conjunction with Harris’ (2000) six-stage process of strategy teaching, in order for beginner learners of Spanish to become less reliant on, and expectant of, teacher help. She had two focus groups, selected on the basis of prior attainment (as defined by their Key Stage 2 data), and wanted to look into how pupils with different histories of attainment grew in confidence and resilience in their approach to reading in a foreign language. She found that a change occurred in her classroom, and that with explicitly taught strategies and practice, pupils became markedly more autonomous and confident readers, relying less on the teacher and drawing more on their own resources.
I am an advocate of a move from pupils undertaking controlled assessments that contribute to 60% of their grade, to equal weighting assessment of the four language skills. I certainly shall not miss the inauthentic tasks posed to the pupils along with a focus on the productive skills. I was however, slightly panicked at the thought of the introduction of the new assessments. How would my pupils cope when presented with a variety of different text styles and asked to answer questions based upon their comprehension of them? Having placed so much emphasis on the teaching of the productive skills, it was clear that I needed to adjust my own teaching to ensure that an equal amount of time was dedicated to the improvement of all skills. This piece of research therefore was a development of pupil autonomy and my own practice. Before my research, when given a reading task to do pupils would immediately respond with comments such as ‘Miss I don’t understand’ or ‘Miss I need help’ before even reading the first word of a text. They did not have the confidence to approach such a task and tackle it on their own. I needed to get them to become less reliant on me and more confident in their own language skills. Furthermore, the lower attaining group had an average reading age of eight years and therefore these pupils needed to realise that they could, with the right tools, succeed in reading activities.
My research was spread across five lessons; a different text style explored in each lesson. The texts included two from a textbook, a recipe and two short stories. It was important for me to match the texts to the interests of my pupils whilst also exposing them to a variety of registers and presentation styles. Before giving them a text in Spanish I gave them a poem in Dutch by Joan Walsh Anglund. I did this so that all pupils were attempting to understand a language of which they had no experience. I asked the pupils how they went about securing their understanding and began to compile a list of strategies with them: pupil voice was key to my research—I wanted my findings to benefit them and I wanted them to invest in the process.
It was at this point that the explicit teaching of strategies needed to start. For learners of modern foreign languages, Harris and Snow (2004) promote the idea of explicit teaching of strategies along with the provision of a checklist to support the use of these explicit techniques (this is explored in more detail in the report). In the first instance, pupils were able to practise using different strategies in order for them to understand which technique is the most appropriate. I gave the pupils the checklist of strategies and I modelled how they could approach a reading activity. Pupils at this stage were very much so aware of the teaching process and were conscious of employing strategies in their practice. With practice came the automatic application of a strategy without referring to the checklist: the conscious became the unconscious.
In order to ensure that learner autonomy was at the heart of my work, I asked my pupils to set themselves an action plan that included their own targets and how they would monitor their progress and achievements. In supporting pupils generally to come up with their own targets, I coached them in their own thinking rather than set them targets that I think they should achieve. For those who struggled, more direction was given. These action plans were integral to monitoring the journey towards autonomy for both the pupils and me.
As the pupils practised I began to withdraw the checklists with a view to monitoring automatic employment of strategy. Most pupils responded well and happily engaged in a task independently. Some however, generally in the lower attaining group, found it difficult to progress without a reference point. Rather than give them the checklist (I did not want their reliance to transfer from teacher to checklist) I questioned them on what they could do. When they came up with the answer themselves they were visibly proud and felt able to attempt the activity.
Pupils initially had a negative perception of their ability to cope with a comprehension activity and therefore did not enjoy success in such tasks. However, by the end of the research process there was a clear transfer in their attitude. I feel that this is simply down to the fact that they had been explicitly given the tools to approach reading activities and therefore were confident in themselves. Furthermore, through encouraging them to take an active role in my research, the pupils were invested in the outcomes.
This piece of research, although unique to two classes, will have a great impact on my own practice. I will now ensure that explicit strategy instruction is a feature in my teaching and that I adapt the reading checklist for the other skills. Pupil voice will remain important; they are the recipients of my teaching and therefore what I deliver needs to be right and appropriate for them. I understand that every pupil will not use the same checklist in the same way and it is this thought that excites me in the development of future checklists. What is clear is that pupils greatly benefit from being provided with the tools to be successful autonomously and, when given the chance to, will prove themselves proud in this area.
Hannah’s full research report can be read here: h-sharma-how-can-i-encourage-my-year-7-learners-mteach-journal