Enhancing MFL teaching for new tutors

Date: 19 September, 2008
Location: Leeds University Business School
Event type: Workshop

Location map | Programme | Event report

students in class

This event offered a forum for new and experienced tutors to share ideas and innovation in the teaching of modern languages. The format for the day was a series of workshops focusing on 'lesson planning, in language teaching'; 'student participation and motivation'; and 'feedback and assessment'. There was also an opportunity for participants to deliver a 'mini-lesson' and receive feedback from the group, and a question and answer session will facilitate further discussion between colleagues. The event aimed to provide new tutors and language assistants with a thorough induction to the principles of language teaching and to encourage good practice in MFL teaching in Higher Education.

The workshop was sponsored by LLAS and Leeds University Faculty of Arts Graduate School.

Workshop Outputs

Powerpoints and videos from this workshop are available in our materials bank.


Programme for 19 September 2008
Time Session
09.15 - 09.45 Registration and coffee
09.45 - 10.00 Welcome and introduction to the LLAS Subject Centre
LLAS Staff
10.00 - 11.00

Mini lessons (in groups of 6-8)

Participants are asked to prepare a 5 minute language lesson on a given topic and vocabulary, which they will present to others in the group. A feedback form will be distributed to all participants, and they will be asked to comment on one aspect of the mini-lesson that they thought they could use, as well as identify how the ‘teacher’ kept their attention, motivated them etc. Facilitators will guide group discussions.

11.00 - 11.15 Break
11.15 - 12.45

Lesson planning
Honor Aldred

This session will cover some aspects of lesson planning that are specific to language teaching, and aim to offer practical tips and advice on how to prepare and deliver the lesson effectively. It will include variation of exercises, how much time to spend on individual sections, signposting, etc.

12.45 - 13.30 Lunch
13.30 - 14.30

Student participation and motivation
Antonio Martínez-Arboleda

This session will explore techniques and methods of motivating students and encouraging participation in language classes. It will also deal with examples of ‘problem situations’ and how to solve them, such as punctuality, over/under-enthusiastic students, how to deal with students who have not prepared for a class exercise or ask ‘trick’ questions etc.

14.30 - 14.45 Break
14.45 - 15.45

Assessment and feedback
Paul Cooke

This session will deal with formal marking procedures (including anonymous assessment), where to find criteria for marking, informal or verbal feedback, and good practice in assessment.

15.45 - 15.50 Short break
15.50 - 16.20

Closing discussions

A question and answer session allowing the opportunity for new and more experienced language tutors to share ideas and concerns in an open forum.

Event report: Enhancing Modern Foreign Language (MFL) Teaching for New Tutors

By Anja Kirchdorfer, Manchester Metropolitan University

This one-day workshop was hosted by the University of Leeds and funded by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS). The aim of this event was to provide new tutors and language assistants with a thorough induction to the principles of language teaching and to encourage good practice in MFL teaching in Higher Education. The event was divided in 4 main sessions (Speed-teaching, Lesson planning, Student participation and motivation, Assessment and feedback), which are detailed below:

Session 1: Speed-teaching

The aim of this exercise was for each participant to have some experience of teaching a modern foreign language prior to the other three sessions. In order to achieve this, all participants had been asked to prepare a mini lesson in the modern foreign language that they teach, prior to the workshop. The topic of this 5-minute lesson had to be “In the Café” and should be aimed at a beginner’s class of no more than 6 students. One grammar point and/or new vocabulary had to be introduced. There were no restrictions to teaching style and methodology, and we were told that whiteboard and flipchart paper would be available, however, no OHP or PowerPoint facilities. We were asked to think about the following questions when preparing our lesson, and when “attending” our peers’ lessons:

  • What do you want your students to achieve in the lesson?
  • What teaching methods will you use to achieve these?
  • How will you introduce, progress through, and conclude the lesson?
  • How will you explain the grammar points / vocabulary for your students?
  • How will you check whether your students have understood your explanations?
  • How will you recognise whether your students are engaged in the lesson?
  • How will you encourage your students to speak in the target language?
  • How will you consider student diversity?

We were divided into 6 groups of approximately 5 participants and 1 facilitator to guide us through our group discussions and reflections on the mini lessons. On Rhian Atkin’s (the workshop organiser and chair) signal, the first person of each group started his/her lesson. After 5 minutes, Rhian gave the signal for the changeover to the next person in the group.

This exercise was followed by feedback on the lessons by members of the group and a reflection of each participant on their own lesson. The questions to be answered were:

  • What do I want to start doing in my lessons?
  • What do I want to continue doing?
  • What do I want to stop doing?

Session 2: Lesson planning

Honor Aldred, University of Leeds

Honor Aldred’s presentation about Lesson planning started with “a (very) little theory” about second language acquisition to give workshop participants a bit of background information before getting to the more practical main topic.

Honor mentioned five issues that influence a learner’s second language acquisition:

  • Parameters set at L1 (first language) values: Learners have certain expectations in the second language they are learning, based on grammatical structures etc. that they are used to in their mother tongue.
  • Learning styles
  • Motivation: Why do people learn languages?
  • Psychological factors
  • Cognitive processes, reorganising existing knowledge. This is why progression is very important in the learning process.

Therefore, it is important to have some knowledge about the learners’ background in order to design a lesson that suits their experience, preferences and needs.

Honor then went on to talk about different methodologies and approaches to language teaching:

  • Grammar-Translation method
  • Direct method
  • Communicative Language Teaching with a focus on meaning
  • Form-focused instruction, regularly revisiting grammatical structures
  • Task-focused instruction, where students identify grammatical and syntactical structures for themselves
  • Learner autonomy

After mentioning some advantages and disadvantages for each one of these methodologies, Honor stressed that a mix of different approaches was a good idea. In this way one could use methodologies according to learner group and aims of lessons, thus getting the best out of each one of them.

In a next step, Honor presented us with some principles of language learning to bear in mind when teaching a modern foreign language:

  • Students need to be in charge of their own learning
  • Students can learn from or with each other
  • If students have varying learning styles they need varying teaching styles
  • A mix of methodologies may be the best approach
  • Focus on form within meaning-based instruction

Studies show that…

  • Formal instruction speeds up the language acquisition process
  • Explicit instruction is more effective than implicit
  • Drills followed by contextualised, freer use are useful
  • Regression is normal – with U-shaped development where performance is likely to be particularly variable

This first part of the session (theory) was concluded with a 10 minute group task where participants were asked to discuss which methodology they used in their mini lessons, what the advantages of this approach were, and, how the lessons could be improved in the light of the different methodologies and approaches mentioned during the presentation.

After this information on some theories behind language teaching, Honor then went on to talk about some practical issues related to lesson planning. She first pointed out some constraints that might need to be considered when preparing a lesson:

  • Degree of prescription in the module you will be teaching
  • Your departmental policy re language of instruction
  • Facilities available to you (e.g. IT)
  • Number and duration of seminars
  • Numbers of students in the seminar

All the above will influence the way a lesson has to be designed and delivered.

Honor then highlighted the importance of signposting because this improves learner involvement and autonomy. It should be done at the beginning of a lesson and then again at the end. She stressed that this would make it much easier for students to understand what was being done and how it fitted in the wider context of what had been done before and what would be done in the next lesson(s).

Some important points to be considered when making the lesson plan, were then presented:

  • Objectives of the lesson should be clear to both teacher and students
  • Timing: time should be allowed for registration, feedback on marked work (both whole class and individual), questions and the setting of work to be done for the following week
  • How will each element of the lesson be treated?
  • Mix group work and whole class work

Following this very practical advice, Honor talked about some additional issues that should be considered. She highlighted the importance of flexibility, both in the course of the lesson and in the language of instruction. She pointed out that one should deviate from the original lesson plan if necessary, even if this meant that work prepared would not be finished. However, Honor then stressed that it was important for the teacher to think about what to do with work left undone at the end of the seminar: To be done as additional independent work? Or via resources on VLE? Or e-mail? Lastly, Honor mentioned the necessity of dealing with questions one could not answer during the seminar, as they should not be ignored. Possibilities would be to answer them in e-mail, via VLE or in the next scheduled lesson.

Finally, Honor shared some of her ideas for the classroom, e.g.: If the seminar room is networked, use prepared Word files to gain a little time (they can be edited as part of the lesson, PowerPoint files can’t). One of her ideas for OHP slides was to have the questions on one slide, the answers on another slide, and then put the answer-slide on top of the question-slide, but slightly further down so one could see both questions and answers. This is useful when students are asked to correct their own work. Honor advised the participants to crib ideas from their own experience as a student, and from colleagues. To conclude this last part of the session, participants were asked to work in groups and think about ideas they remember as being helpful from their own experience as a student.

Session 3: Student participation and motivation

Antonio Martinez-Arboleda, University of Leeds

Antonio’s presentation was divided in 4 parts:

  1. Motivation in language learning: what makes learners work hard, want to learn and enjoy the tasks?
  2. Ways of improving motivation. Is there anything that the teacher can do at all?
  3. Effective techniques to improve participation in the language class.
  4. Problem situations and how to solve them.

1. To start this part of the session, Antonio asked different groups of workshop participants to discuss motivating factors for a) Complete Beginners, b) Year 1 (post A-Level) Learners, and c) Final Year students. We then shared and discussed our results with the whole group:

  • Beginners: motivated teacher, expectation, external / social values (grades, employability)
  • Year 1: passion for language itself, using language in authentic setting, intellectual satisfaction through passing exams well, employability
  • Final Year: better group dynamics, showing off competence after year abroad, employability

Antonio then explained the different levels of motivation according to level of language:

  • Beginners are generally very motivated because they are starting something new and exciting, and it is at this stage easy to see progress.
  • Advanced learners find it more difficult to notice progress, which impacts their level of motivation.
  • Final Year students often feel like they don’t need lessons anymore, they believe to have reached the highest possible level. However, they are often very hard-working students, so where does the motivation come from? They want to excel and get good grades.

2. In the next part of his presentation, Antonio went on to talk about ways for the teacher to improve motivation. He divided these in 4 parts: a) attitudes towards the learning situation, b) intrinsic motivation, c) extrinsic motivation and d) language anxiety.

a) There are various things that the teacher can do to improve attitudes towards the learning situation:

  • Deliver a well structured and clear programme
  • Set well described, achievable and well sequenced tasks
  • Provide adequate facilities and material
  • Ensure good teacher-student and student-student rapport

b) Intrinsic motivation means an open interest in the other language group. To improve this, the teacher can

  • Promote cultural empathy with the speakers of the target language
  • Show the complexity of society or societies of the target language
  • Show the richness and diversity of the target language, e.g. by using video, film, text and popular culture

c) Extrinsic motivation means result-oriented motivation. The teacher can improve this by

  • Rewarding excellence (by using the full stretch of first-class marks)
  • Rewarding improvement
  • Showing success of language graduates

d) In order to prevent language anxiety, the teacher can

  • Set tasks that are challenging, but manageable
  • Vary types of tasks and types of assessments: Everybody is good at something!
  • Give helpful feedback

3. The third part of Antonio’s session dealt with techniques to improve participation in an oral class. We were asked to discuss the following points in our groups:

  • Organising space and timing
  • Roles and responsibilities in the classroom, including the teacher
  • Designing the task

After discussing these topics in our groups and then in the big group with Antonio, the results were as follows:

  • Space and timing: Tables should be arranged in a circle where possible, but at least in a way that everybody could see everybody else. Antonio explained that it was a good idea for the teacher to sit or stand outside this circle to avoid a scenario where students don’t talk to each other but towards the teacher. Timing should be flexible to allow for a natural flow of conversation.
  • Roles: For each oral class a different student should be asked to act as moderator instead of the teacher. This makes it easier for students to talk to each other. The teacher’s prime role should be to design a good class.
  • Designing the task: Tasks should be varied. Relevant topics should be chosen and formulated in a way that gets students to discuss pros and cons. Antonio’s example was: If you call the topic “Should the environment be protected?” then everybody agrees that yes, but there won’t be any discussion. If you call the topic “Should cars be banned from Leeds city centre and be charged £15 a day for driving in or through?” then they will get into a heated discussion. Antonio also mentioned pre-preparation would be a good idea as it avoids students’ lack of vocabulary during the oral class.

4. In his final part of the presentation, Antonio gave some advice on how to deal with problem situations. Watching two interviews that he had organized and filmed with two of his colleagues started this session. The first colleague related a story about a very shy student that he had had, and how he tried to solve this problem. The second colleague talked about the challenge native-speakers of a language can be to a non-native-speaker teacher. After briefly discussing these cases in the big group, the following principles were drawn from their experiences:

  • Dialogue outside the classroom is helpful
  • A problem has to be dealt with at once
  • There are no quick fixes
  • It is important to consider the individual
  • Make sure the climate in the class is good
  • Make sure people are in the right class
  • And finally, ask colleagues

Session 4: Assessment and feedback

Paul Cooke, University of Leeds

Paul started his presentation with an overview of a current project that tries to match student and staff expectations. The project started after the National Student Survey 2005 had shown disappointing results on assessment and feedback. The project aimed to understand what these results actually meant in order to then be able to improve some key issues. In order to achieve this, five questions of the National Survey were asked of students and staff and analysed into a) student perceptions and concerns, b) academic perceptions and concerns, and c) good practice / enhancement. The results showed that students and staff identified similar issues. So was one student complaint: Lack of clear marking criteria or grade descriptors. And the matching staff complaint: Marking criteria or grade descriptors are published through handbooks and on websites but students struggle to understand them. After identifying these issues, steps were taken to resolve them, and more will be done in the future.

Current good practice involves:

  • A departmental / module handbook which details when assessments take place, when the results can be expected and includes sample questions which are worked through in class.
  • In-class exercises to prepare for assessment and to explain different grades where common problems are discussed.
  • Hints and tips sheets / model answers
  • Extra classes for strugglers
  • A “Feedback Week” where lecturers are available for extended office hours
  • Drop-in style sessions, for those students who are concerned about their marks
  • Personalised emails following assignment
  • Feedback sheets and comments for exam scripts

Enhancement involves:

  • The above good practice to be used more widely
  • More explicit skills training for assessment tasks including more online materials and guidance
  • A compulsory induction programme where lecturers outline the assessment and feedback arrangements and what is expected from students
  • More continuous testing with a move away from end-of-module exams
  • Five minute 1 to 1 tutorials for verbal feedback
  • Students to be given a clearer idea of when their work will be marked and returned
  • Feedback comments to be as constructive as possible, even on work that achieves a high mark, and to focus on the way students can improve their performance

Paul ended his session with a 10-minute group exercise where participants were asked to mark four essays using the marking criteria for undergraduate studies modules. It was known that the essays had been marked 30, 48, 60 and 75, and the group work task was to find out which mark had been given to which essay. This had to then be justified using the marking criteria. The aim of this exercise was to try and be as objective as possible during the marking process.

Event Report

by Rhian Atkin, University of Leeds

Responses to the advertised programme were very encouraging, with registrations exceeding the number of places available. In total, twenty-nine participants (thirty-six, including those involved in facilitating sessions) attended on the day, and the feedback received both verbally and on the feedback forms was very positive, with participants commenting that the event was very useful for new teaching assistants. Alison Dickens from the LLAS Subject Centre welcomed participants and opened the day with a brief presentation of the resources available through the subject centre.

The first session, speed-teaching, was led by Rebecca Dearden and Rhian Atkin. It was used to get participants talking and thinking about the subject of teaching. In advance of the event, each delegate prepared a mini lesson to last a maximum of five minutes. During the first session, the lessons were presented in small groups, and the subsequent discussions guided by a facilitator. Feedback from the participants indicates that the session was well received, useful, and good fun (even if slightly scary at first!), and that participants enjoyed preparing a task in advance.

A short task was set for participants to discuss during the break, which would lead into the next session on lesson planning, and in a future workshop, we would intend to return to discuss this in more detail later on in the day.

Session Two was led by Honor Aldred, who explored some of the theory of teaching foreign languages and how we plan and structure lessons. The workshop included two breakout sessions which drew well on the experience of the speed-teaching session as well as the participants’ experiences as learners as well as teachers. More than half of those who responded to the feedback questionnaires said that this session would be particularly useful to them in the future.

Session Three was led by Antonio Martínez Arboleda, and covered student participation and motivation. Again, participants indicated that they found it very useful to think about the different factors that motivate students, and that this would be of practical benefit as they go into the new academic year. As well as the small group tasks, Antonio also showed some video clips of experienced colleagues talking about some of the specific challenges they had faced in language teaching, and how they resolved these, and this opened up group discussion.

The final workshop session approached some of the issues surrounding formal assessment, and the group task allowed participants to practise marking some short pieces of student work. Again, this led to a lively discussion and was highlighted as being particularly useful on the feedback forms.

The venue for the workshop was excellent, with full technology facilities available and good access. We arranged the groups before participants arrived, saving time on the day and ensuring that each group had a good mix of languages and experience. Feedback indicated that this was appreciated by participants. The day flowed very well, with clear links between the workshops. Some participants commented that the workshops were a little too institution-specific (ie. to Leeds) at times, and this could be resolved in the future by inviting workshop leaders from other institutions to offer one or more workshops. There were some problems with timings after lunch, as some participants returned late. For future similar events, we would arrange lunch closer to the workshop venue and increase the allocated time for at least one of the workshops after lunch. The timing problems meant that the final question and answer / discussion session was cut short, and some participants had to leave. Another way of improving this would be to incorporate some time after each workshop for questions and discussions. Finally, one respondent commented that a greater focus on language teaching would be useful in some parts of the day: we think that this refers to the workshop on assessment, and would request the workshop leader for any future event to focus additionally on marking criteria for language work, and on informal feedback in the classroom.

Overall, the workshop was a great success, with all of the participants who submitted feedback forms rating it excellent or very good (or in one case, good). General comments were very positive, both on the day and in the week or so since the workshop took place. The budget was more than sufficient to provide all workshop materials, lunch, refreshments, and a wine reception following the workshop (full budget report below). The organisers certainly feel that there would be scope to run similar events in the future, and would like to thank both the LLAS Subject Centre and the graduate school for their support, encouragement and contributions to a useful, productive and very enjoyable workshop.