Metacognitive Questioning in MFL

‘How are you?’  That simplest of questions, which most of us ask countless times a day.  But how closely do we listen to the response?  If you are like me, the answer is (sorry) not that attentively, because we predict what we are about to hear.  Mostly, I anticipate, ‘fine’, but in a school in December, I am adding ‘cold’, ‘tired’ and ‘ill’ to my options.

This process of prediction is so instinctive in our first language, but it does not automatically transfer to second language learning and this is something that my team and I have been seeking to address with our students through metacognitive questioning. 

Our aim is to make explicit how to approach tasks, particularly listening activities, in order to demystify the skill of listening to all of our students (our MFL classes are mixed ability).  By repeatedly drawing attention to the process of listening, we are helping to build our students’ confidence in their ability to succeed, as well as their resilience as learners.  Rather than allowing a student to think that another student is ‘just good at’ languages, we are teaching students how to self-regulate to complete a task successfully.

In recent years, we have been strongly influenced by the listening as modelling approach (LAM) espoused by Gianfranco Conti.  While we are not using his approach in the purest sense, we have embraced the use of sentence builders, which present students with the language we are teaching them in a grid format, alongside the English translations.  We create our own listening resources based on these and now use extensive listening practice to help students to acquire new language.

Regular readers of the Class Teaching Blog will no doubt be aware of Durrington High School’s focus on metacognition over the last few years and, as an MFL team, we are constantly striving to align what we believe to be best practice in MFL teaching with whole school priorities.  We have an MFL-specific set of metacognitive questions based on planning, monitoring and evaluating and these are displayed in our classrooms as an aide-memoire for us. You can see a copy below:

It is fair to say that metacognitive questioning related to planning activities is the most embedded strand and a typical questioning routine prior to starting a listening task might be as follows:

  • What do we need to remember when completing this type of activity?
  • What can we use to help us with this activity?
  • What do we need to be listening for?  What type of information will give us the correct answer?
  • Is there anything that we need to watch out for?

At times, we may also model our own approach to a task by talking through our thought processes.  For example, when modelling a multiple-choice listening task to a Y7 class this week, I said something like:

  • Right, for number one I have to listen out for the opinion verb, so I need to find that column in my sentence builder.  It is the first column, so I know that I am going to hear what I need at the start of the sentence.  I have 3 options, so I am definitely going to hear one of those.  In fact, I don’t need to understand the whole sentence to find the correct answer.  So, if I scan down my sentence builder before we start, I can predict what I am likely to hear, which is going to make the task easier.  I am either going to hear ‘j’adore’, ‘j’aime’ or ‘je n’aime pas’.  ‘J’adore’ is going to be easier to spot, because it sounds different to the other two.  To hear the difference between ‘j’aime’ and ‘je n’aime pas’, I am going to listen closely to see if I hear the ‘pas’.

Closely aligned to this is how we approach eliciting answers from students.  As teachers, we routinely model the first question and in MFL, this typically involves allowing students to complete a question and then asking a student for the answer.  However, a correct answer only tells us that one student knows how to complete the task, it does not actually model the task to other students, so we would typically follow up with, ‘How did you know that was the correct answer?’  Sometimes we ask further questions to ensure that the process the student used is fully articulated, but increasingly students are able to give full explanations of what they did unprompted.  For example, ‘I know that ‘cumpleaños’ means birthday, so I realised that the answer would come after that.  I knew that ‘quince’ was a number, but I couldn’t remember if it was 5 or 15, so I used my sentence builder to check.  I remembered that ‘agosto’ means August because it is similar to the English’.  This is much more powerful than an answer of ‘15th August’ and is well worth the additional time that it takes.

The challenge in bringing about change, as well all know, is to embed it in practice and, based on regular lesson drop-ins by me and members of our SLT, I am confident that we, as a team, have done this in terms of using metacognitive questioning to enable more students to experience success in listening tasks.  Our next steps are to ensure that this is embedded as consistently for other types of task, as well as to develop our use of metacognitive questioning to help students to monitor and evaluate their work.

Kate Cooper – MFL Curriculum Leader

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