There have been several changes in the life of this languages teacher since I last wrote a blog post – a job change (with another pending, though within the same school) and an associated house move have left me with very little time to catch up with, and contribute to, the world of Twitter, let alone to do the reading I’d like and to blog. However, the Easter break is upon us and, having settled into new routines, I’m determined to make the most of it by attacking the pile of books next to my bed! Ordered weeks ago, and top of my list, is Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher by Steve Smith – a little bit because he was my own languages teacher over 20 years ago, and so I read his output with some personal interest, but mainly because his counsel on the art of language teaching is by now well-known both for its intelligent precision and, most importantly, its practicality in application to the classroom. I won’t go on about that ever-lacking commodity in the lives of all teachers – time, just in case I needed to say it! – but will just reiterate that, like all of us in education, I could do with more. Teachers don’t always have the time to read up on research and practice as much as I know they would like, so books like Steve’s, which come straight to the point and are crammed full of useful and immediately applicable tasks, strategies and ideas, are a real godsend.
The book is divided into fourteen chapters, twelve of which you can see on the list below. It successfully manages to appeal to teachers at all stages of their careers – NQTs will find the clear advice on what makes a great teacher and on running a room invaluable but the book is relevant for all language teachers. There are detailed chapters on what works well in all four skill areas, including how to teach those skills, rather than simply bung them in and hope for the best (listening is dealt with in the chapter Enjoying Sounds). What Steve does with this book is to gather together all of the qualities which tend to lead to the best outcomes for learners of all abilities, regardless of your own methodology preference. Indeed, the book is keen to point out that there is no one, ideal way of teaching languages; instead, it’s important to be an informed and reflective practitioner, who considers carefully what their own beliefs about effective language teaching are. If you believe in your way of doing things and your way of doing things is well-informed, it is likely to work well. He emphasises his point by describing three unorthodox case studies towards the end of the book, which have all worked well in their respective contexts. Steve does, though, point out that, in all cases, there are commonalities: a key message throughout the book is the need for meaningful “TL input and opportunities to recycle language.”
Steve’s book has definitely reminded me to think about how effectively I use TL within the classroom and how effectively I ask my students to use it. This will be an immediate focus in my teaching and I liked the idea of perhaps having a departmental TL policy, to ensure consistency. There are so many ideas for structuring learning in this book that it is difficult to single one or two out for reviewing. One I particularly liked was teaching using a text and incorporating strategy. I’m a big fan of explicit teaching of strategy and, in my experience, students need reminding of such “ways in” on many occasions, to build their resilience in approaching a difficult task. We all, I would hope, refer to strategy into our lessons, but I really liked the way Steve built the strategy into the students’ actual interaction with the text, rather than explaining or eliciting the strategies from the students and then letting them get on with trying to use them. The approach referred to in the book involves skilled and judicious use of modelling. It leads the students through the reading experience, using strategies such as getting them to begin by recalling their prior knowledge by spending 2 minutes in English thinking about what they already know about the text’s topic. I would say that, despite being in English, this is two minutes well-spent, if it both piques students’ interest and primes them for better understanding of what they are about to read. Incidentally, Steve recommends frequently reading texts aloud to students, again something I intend to do more of. Their main source of aural input is you, as their teacher, and they need a good deal of it to acquire the necessary output skills. A range of strategic approaches which build upon each other are recommended, such as cognate and verb finding, interspersed with activities to get students interacting with the text. He advocates modelling when finding cognates, showing students the thought-processes behind this. In my experience, students can find “easy” cognates but sometimes don’t find all those that we might expect – often because their vocabulary in English is lacking. Elsewhere in the book, Steve points out that it can be useful to draw students’ attention to language patterns between French and English – an example being some -er verbs that become -ate verbs in English. At higher levels in some of the specimen reading material for GCSE provided by AQA, the texts contain cognates which few students will pick up on because they do not know the relevant words in English, so anything we can do to increase lexical and basic etymological knowledge (and teach students to notice it!) will be helpful here.
In short, the book is well worth having in your language teaching library, providing a brilliant synthesis of skills, activity types and qualities to move learning forward for students, in what is an ever-evolving and cognitively challenging journey.