Voices

Eight ways to improve your secondary school language project

By Cristina Sánchez

09 March 2017 - 17:00

Are you curious about setting up an international, inter-school language project? Spanish teacher Cristina Sánchez explains how to make it a success.

Teaching modern foreign languages to Year 9 students (aged 13 to 14) can be tricky for even the most experienced teachers. Some students are eager to learn more and reach fluency, while others will have decided before they even set foot in your classroom that they don't want to study a language the following year, when they begin their GCSEs. This presents a year-long challenge: to capture the interest of those students who don’t want to continue with the subject, and buoy the enthusiasm of those who have fallen in love with the language already.

Enter the collaborative inter-school language project. Learning with children from another country can inject excitement, inspiration and purpose into the classroom. As well as sparking children's curiosity, a well-planned language project with a partner school abroad helps them learn about a new culture and develop their language skills.

Here are the most important lessons I learned from running an eTwinning Spanish language project with my Year 9 students.

1. Make the most of limited time

Year 9 students at my school have 90 minutes of Spanish language tuition a week. By contrast, at Colegio Montpellier, our partner school in Spain, students learn English for four hours each week. Given the limited time for teaching languages in UK secondary schools compared with other European countries, it is important to consider how a language project can help to achieve broader curriculum objectives.

2. Define your objectives 

Before you start to plan specific classroom activities with your partner school, be clear about what you want your students to get out of the experience. Do you want them to practice speaking? Or is your project geared towards writing and reading skills? If you are studying history or geography in your language class, why not partner with a school in a country relevant to understanding the topic from a different perspective?

Once you agree a set of shared aims, you can start building activities together. Work closely with your partner school to ensure that the activities you design are collaborative, and require students to seek help from their partners.

3. Choose projects that improve more than one skill

'Twins in Contact', the eTwinning project that I started with a partner colleague at Colegio Montpellier in Madrid, was designed to develop students’ linguistic and intercultural skills: the ability to understand and adapt to different cultural contexts.

To do this, my partner teacher and I organised a series of lessons where students practised speaking in the past tense about their city. Students spent the first lesson finding out about some of Madrid’s essential attractions: la Gran Vía (a lively shopping street in Madrid), el Museo del Prado, and el Parque del Retiro. The madrileños asked us about our favourite London locations, shopping spots and fun places to hang out.

We then plotted interactive route maps of the places they would most like to visit in Madrid or London, using travel tips from students at the other partner school. The students made video presentations describing what happened on their imagined virtual trips to these cities.

The project gave students a chance to be creative, improved their presentation and grammatical skills, and gave them an idea of what it might be like to visit a foreign city without the cost of a plane ticket.

4. Every activity helps, no matter how small

During busy periods of the year, it may be unrealistic to run activities every week, or even every other week. We tried to organise some kind of collaborative activity to take place at least every three weeks. Do not just set eTwinning tasks for homework; instead, make them the core of your lesson.

It could be something small, like sharing a link to a popular song, video or TV programme. That way, the lesson starts with a suggestion from the partner school and connects your students with their partners’ lives.

To work on reading and writing skills, ask students to read sentences created for them by their partners, then get them to write sentences for their partners using their favourite words. Whatever you do, the most important thing is to do it consistently, so that students feel a continual sense of progression and connection throughout the project. 

5. Use online tools and resources

A face-to-face visit to your partner school allows students to practise their language skills in an authentic setting. However, there may not be enough room in the school calendar or hours in the day to organise one more school trip.

To help counter this, try some online tools designed to help students collaborate. Tripline allows students to create animated maps with photos and text, bringing places and journeys to life. With Kahoot, students can test the knowledge of their partners through fun learning games. Digital platforms for inter-school collaboration, like eTwinning's Twinspace make it easy to securely exchange project work through photos, text and video.

Another great tool is Padlet, is a virtual wall that allows people to share ideas around a topic, posting comments, pictures, short videos and even voice recordings. The first task we set our students was to write a short paragraph introducing themselves in Spanish or English to their partners, say their favourite word in English and in Spanish and then post it on Padlet. Students loved to read what everybody else had written about themselves.

Simple activities can make language learning meaningful. Making new friends of the same age who live in another country is a great way to motivate your students to practise a new language.

6. Harness students' natural curiosity

At the start of our project, students were excited about having long-distance, 'pen pal'-style interactions with their partners. When we told them that this wasn’t something that we could spend much time doing in lessons, they were disappointed.

So, my partner teacher and I decided to teach them how to use the Twinspace communication tools to connect with each other outside of class, in a safe and responsible way. This allowed the students to have more free-form, natural conversations with their partners. They needed no extra encouragement to send instant messages over the Twinspace, asking their Spanish peers about all kinds of things that we didn’t cover in class.

You would be surprised at the linguistic and cultural insights students pick up from asking one another questions in a secure space online. It can lead to some really interesting discussions in the classroom. Who would expect to hear a Year 9 talking about Cervantes in a video conference, or students talking about la Gran Vía and Oxford Street as if they had just met there?

7. Help shy students get involved

Working together gives students access to the most interesting classroom resource of all – the walking, talking, human lexicons that are the students at your partner school.

Some of your students may be shy at first. To counteract this, set ice-breaker assignments that help everyone get to know each other better.

In one activity, my partner teacher and I asked teams from each of our schools to upload a group photo to the 'Twinspace' site. Team members added a description in Spanish (or English) of their physical appearance, personality, interests and hobbies.

Each team had to read the descriptions and make a video presentation in which they attempted to explain, in the language they were learning, which person from our photos they thought matched each description, and why. Only after watching each other’s videos were students allowed to reveal whether or not their partner’s guesses had been correct.

8. Celebrate achievements as a group

Before this project, none of my Year 9 students had ever visited Madrid. Some of them worried that their spoken Spanish would be embarrassingly bad, compared to their partners’ English. They were heartened to find out that this wasn’t the case at all.

Towards the end of the project, we organised a Skype video conference with all of the students who had been involved. It felt like a celebration of how far everyone had come. Doing something like this at the end of a collaboration, when students feel familiar and comfortable with their partners, is an inclusive and supportive way to mark your students' achievements.

Cristina Sánchez is a Spanish teacher and Head of Modern foreign languages at James Allen’s Girls School. Her project, 'Twins in Contact', won the 2016 national eTwinning Award for active language learning.

Find out more about eTwinning, the free online community where teachers across Europe can find partners, work on projects, exchange best practice and enable student collaboration.

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