Have you ever noticed how the water in a stream doesn’t all take the same path around rocks and trees in its way, but it is all still heading in roughly the same direction, towards a bigger body of water further down the stream? Or how rain drops on a window wind their way down, some picking up others and becoming bigger drops along the way but all ultimately ending up at the bottom of the window?
I think the students in my language classes are much the same. It really got going when I was pondering over how we can improve the transition from primary school language learning to secondary school language learning in my school.
We have a large number of feeder schools, most of which have a program and specialist teacher for one of the languages we offer. There is a smattering of students who come to us having done neither Japanese nor German. Year 8 students select which language they will study for the year and may choose to study both. The time allocation and focus of the primary school language programs vary according to local needs and circumstances, so the students walk into our language rooms every year with a wide variety of past experiences, prior knowledge, expectations and hopes for their secondary language studies.
Common practice in the past has been to start everyone at square one. Beginning from the beginning again. Certainly this was a reflection on the language predominantly taught in primary schools until around 10 years ago, but we are seeing this change. We used to have more students who had some knowledge of German for some of their primary schooling and only a small group who had previously done any Japanese. So starting again didn’t seem a problem. But that has been in a state of change recently.
As more of our primary schools are valuing language learning right from the junior primary years and as the numbers of our feeder schools offering Japanese has increased, more students now come to us with significant experience in learning the language. In addition, some choose not to study the language from their primary schooling, looking forward to a new experience and challenge.
While as recently as a month ago I heard a colleague from another school say that ‘by the end of the first semester they’re all at the same point anyway’, I have begun challenging the idea that all students need to go back to the very beginning. Certainly keeping everyone moving together at the same pace makes planning, teaching and assessing relatively straightforward and easy. But what about learning? Notice it’s not mentioned in that statement…
If we start everyone back at the beginning, it seems there are increasing numbers of our students who are treading water, going nowhere for a semester… and where is the learning in that? Of course revision and consolidation are valuable, but 6 months feeling unchallenged and stifled is surely going to lessen their enjoyment of the language which they have perhaps chosen because their primary schooling experience of it lit a fire and excitement in them. As language teachers we yearn for that enthusiasm from our students! On the other hand, those who are new to the language also seem to feel pressured to ‘hurry up’ so that the class can move on. And that is also less than conducive to their feelings of enjoyment and success in language learning. We did not all learn our first language at the same rate…
With the Australian Curriculum’s focus on differentiated teaching and learning, the time is ripe for us to come up with some alternatives. I know other schools stream their students into classes for those who have done the language before and those who are new to it. While this means students can start from 2 different points, it doesn’t ultimately overturn the idea that the whole class moves together. Nor is it possible in all schools, for multiple reasons ranging from student numbers to timetabling issues.
What if my student ‘stream’ was allowed to flow more like a stream in nature? I am far more excited by the idea that if students understand something, they should be allowed to move on to the next thing. For others who need more time they should be allowed to take it, to have more practice and to keep refining their skills and knowledge. I have begun working this way with my Year 9 students. The digital tools we have available to us mean that students can learn about different language structures at their own rate. Today I assessed them with a quick test, they marked the answers for each other and then those who clearly understood how the grammar and vocabulary worked sat together and worked through the next thing using a YouTube clip I’d made and helping each other piece the steps together. Those who needed more time to review, question, relearn, and think differently through the material in the test sat together and did just that. Tools frequently used for the flipped classroom are coming in very handy and students can access them at their own pace. At different points I think we’ll all come back together and students will not always be in the groups the were in today. They will change direction and pace as they hit the ‘rocks’ along the way, but ultimately we’re all heading down the same watercourse.
It’s not streaming in the traditional sense, but perhaps this way of thinking about catering to multiple pathways in language subjects is more realistic and learning centred. If we follow this thinking through, can we better cater to the very mixed experiences in our Year 8 classes? Can we use podcasts, screencasts and other online tools to allow the students to begin at a number of points and thus value their prior learning and help them move forward rather than tread water for a semester? It will likely be far from straightforward or easy, but isn’t the learning the key here?
I would love to hear how others manage the transition from primary to secondary school language programs and the ‘mixed ability class’ in general!