Grammar, Reading and Writing in Modern Languages S4-6
Author(s): James McGonigal, Brian C Templeton
Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material
The purpose of this Paper is to enable Modern Languages and English teachers to discuss the strategies and purpose that they share in developing their students’ understanding and awareness of how language works. Such discussion is a crucial part of the Language Awareness curriculum outlined in Section 4 of LILT Booklet B. By reading and talking about the classroom strategies that they use in common, or might use in common, the language staff of schools and colleges may see possibilities for reinforcing and extending the language skills of those they teach.
Authentic Texts in Reading
The teaching and assessment arrangements for Modern Languages at Standard Grade describe a functional and notional syllabus built around topic areas of ‘relevance and interest to the pupils’ and drawing upon authentic materials. Authenticity is seen as an essential principle in guiding the choice of reading materials and in the selection of reading tasks at Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher. Its influence can be seen most clearly in the decision to allow candidates the use of a foreign language dictionary during the assessment of reading and writing. While access to a dictionary is not intended to diminish the importance of the steady acquisition of vocabulary nor the development of strategies for deducing the meaning of words, e.g. from the context, it is a recognition that a dictionary is an essential tool for language users of any level. The skill of using a dictionary is one in which students must be trained.
By ‘authentic reading materials’ is meant materials which were originally designed by native speakers for a purpose. These purposes might include:
• to inform by presenting information of a functional kind such as signs, notices, instructions
• to persuade by presenting a particular point of view
• to entertain by presenting material of general or particular interest to a certain age group.
At Standard Grade, such materials tend to be drawn from personal correspondence, such as letters containing descriptions and opinions, and from public sources, such as signs, brochures, adverts and articles featured in magazines. At Higher, the main sources of material tend to be ‘good quality journalism’ and accessible modern literary writing, as at this stage students have the option of reading a literary text written by a native speaker for native speakers of the target language. At Advanced Higher, the reading materials continue to be drawn from journalism and the opportunity to develop interest in the literature of the target country is extended.
The contexts at all levels within which the language learning will take place have as their purpose the preparation of the students for direct contact with speakers of the target language, whether this involves the students travelling to the foreign country or the speaker of the foreign language coming to Scotland. At Standard Grade, the development of personal and social language is continued. In addition, there is a strong emphasis on transactional language to enable the pupils to survive in the real situations they will encounter if they travel to the foreign country.
The teaching syllabus is usually based on a series of topic areas which in turn provide opportunities to develop the pupils’ awareness of the culture of the foreign country. In the National Qualifications (Higher Still) framework, there is an attempt to define more clearly the contexts within which the language skills should be developed at each level, in terms of Themes of Study > Topic Areas > Topic Development Strands.
The prescribed themes now describe more clearly than formerly which topic areas are most important at each level, given the teaching time available. The topic development strands indicate the way in which the topics should be developed at each level, with increasing sophistication in terms of the ideas being expressed and the language being displayed.
Examples: At Intermediate 2 and Higher, we have the same three themes of Lifestyles, Education and Work, and The Wider World; however the differences in the Topic Areas and the Topic Development Strands at each level make clear the progression expected in terms of language and sophistication. A student operating at Intermediate 2 level would be expected to develop the themes and topics by producing information of a mainly factual and highly personal nature. A student operating at Higher level would be expected to operate at the level of expressing opinions and ideas about the theme or topic. This would involve the student in showing awareness of opinions held by others in society and establishing his/her position in relation to them by agreeing/disagreeing, giving advantages/disadvantages and arriving at a conclusion. At Advanced Higher level, the student continues to operate at the level of opinions and ideas but the themes and topic areas are more complex and demanding than at Higher, as the three themes concentrate on Personal, Social and Cultural Issues, Topical and Cultural Issues, and Environmental Issues. There are clear implications for the growing complexity of grammar to be explored here.
Although a variety of means of demonstrating comprehension is used in teaching and learning activities (including activities such as carrying out instructions by doing, matching picture to text, matching headline to text, rearranging sections of a text), the favoured method of formally assessing comprehension is multiple choice testing and grid completion at the lower levels, progressing to the use of increasingly complex questioning in English at the upper levels. There are some parallels here with differentiated questioning and assessment in Close Reading in English.
There is also a coherence linking Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher, which can be seen in the gradual movement from basic decoding of messages to more interpretative approaches to meaning. At Standard Grade, students are required to locate and present fairly precise and factual information. As well as continuing to retrieve factual details from increasingly dense and complex texts, at Higher level students are required to make simple inferences about attitudes and intention embodied in the text. At Advanced Higher, the balance continues to shift towards greater demands on the student to define and illustrate the overall patterns of meaning, argument and intention in the text, while the study of literary texts requires the student to show awareness of literary devices, including the use of structure, imagery and rhyme as appropriate.
At both Higher and Advanced Higher, the students also have to develop the skill of translating accurately from the target language into English. The passage for translation is now located within the specific context of the reading comprehension text. This is again in keeping with how the skill of translation is used in real life, which often involves the precise translation of a relatively short passage crucial to an understanding of the whole text. What is looked for is careful attention to the language structure leading to accurate paraphrase with due attention to the appropriate use of English. The development of this skill is usually approached as part of intensive reading, where the teacher/lecturer requires precise translation of certain sentences or phrases, as well as asking for general understanding of the rest of the text.
Development of Reading Skills
The skills required for successful reading in a foreign language are very similar to those highlighted in the teaching of English; similar strategies can be used by both to develop particular reading skills. A stopwatch technique can encourage skimming and scanning, for example. The Standard Grade reading resource-pack for French, "Extra! Extra!", identified four modes of reading, skimming, scanning, intensive reading and extensive reading, and provided texts which could be used to develop the following skills involved in reading:
• prediction: using clues to predict the content of a text and using understanding of the text thus far to predict what will come next
• inference: inferring what is not explicitly stated and using cultural, contextual and word-formation clues to infer the meaning of unfamiliar terms
• identifying relations between various parts of a sentence
• identifying relations between parts of a text through recognising reference markers, discourse markers, etc.
• using a diagram/picture/photo to assist comprehension of a text
• distinguishing important facts/ideas from supporting detail
• distinguishing whether information stated is fact or opinion
• discerning the attitude of the writer
• knowing how to use a dictionary.
All of these skills are equally useful in the native and the foreign language. As in the teaching of English, the teacher of a Modern Language is eager to develop the student’s awareness of how grammar is used to unlock the meaning of texts. In the Subject Guide for Higher Still Modern Languages, teachers and lecturers are encouraged to help students to develop, as opposed to just practise, their reading skills. They are encouraged to discuss a text with the whole class or group, help the students to find the verbs and study the endings in order to work out the subject and the tense. They are also urged to teach students “how to infer meaning from the structure of the piece; how to guess intelligently what is unknown from what is known; how to get help from other languages (notably English, of course) and so on. Then students might be provided with a short text to practise those reading skills, and ‘correction’ may take the form of requiring the students to vocalise how they have come to understand the text and commenting on that rather than checking what the text actually means.” This process may have been started with able Standard Grade pupils.
As in English teaching, cloze passages are used as a means of developing these skills and of ensuring that the students have a sound basic knowledge of the grammar of the target language. Although the cloze passage is no longer a part of the external assessment at Higher, it is still used in teaching as part of intensive reading, to focus attention on the basic aspects of the structure of the language. It does this by asking such questions of the students as why is there an agreement, why a certain tense must be used, what preposition must follow a particular verb, what other noun could be used which would be appropriate in terms of meaning, number and gender.
Grammar in the development of the productive skills
The contexts for the writing tasks, both internal and external, are determined to a large extent by the prescribed themes, topics and topic development strands for each level. However, the nature and purpose of the tasks themselves indicate a significant shift in the type of writing being developed. Particularly at Higher level, there has been a move away from fictional narrative writing in the target language to more personal and functional writing. The functional nature of the writing tasks can be seen most clearly in the following tasks:
• writing a formal letter in response to a job application scenario (Intermediate 2 – external)
• writing a personal record of achievement (Higher – internal)
• directed Writing on behalf of a group, incorporating certain bullet points of information given to you in English (Higher – external).
The introduction of these tasks marks an attempt to prepare students for the sort of realistic writing tasks they might be required to do in real life. The introduction of a Language in Work unit, as a mandatory unit at Access 3 and Intermediate 1, and as an optional unit at Intermediate 2, Higher and Advanced Higher, is an attempt to offer a new more adult context for the development of the formal, vocational language required in the workplace. The Language in Work units place a high premium on accuracy in grammar and spelling and on the appropriateness of register. Students are given the support of templates for the writing tasks, are encouraged to use redrafting as a means of producing work of a high quality, and to use ICT and the support it provides in terms of spell-checking and grammar-checking in the target language.
The other main type of writing to be developed is for the purpose of personal correspondence on topics related to the prescribed themes at each level. This includes the following tasks:
• writing a personal letter of a factual and descriptive nature (Intermediate 2 – internal)
• writing a personal response expressing views and opinions on the topic set (Higher – external)
• summarising the points made in a discussion between two speakers and the writing of a discursive essay on a topic set (Advanced Higher – external).
Writing and Grammatical Awareness
Within the Higher Still framework in Modern Languages, the internal writing tasks at each level are intended to provide a focus for the development (in a supported way) of the writing skills and grammatical awareness which students will need to demonstrate in the external assessment. The strong link between the two receptive skills of speaking and writing is also emphasised: each should be used to support and develop the other. It is often by putting in written form the ideas and expressions which the student has been practising in the spoken form that it becomes possible to discuss any grammatical errors and to suggest more appropriate constructions. It is not necessarily by doing more speaking practice on a topic that that the performance improves. It is often by moving to the written form and analysing the expression that the student can improve accuracy in both speaking and writing.
Example: The use of an internal writing task as a focus for the development of grammatical awareness, while also providing the basis for an improved speaking performance, is well illustrated by the preparation of a Personal Record of Achievement in the Language unit award at Higher level. The task is to write three sections of a Personal Record of Achievement, which could be used as a written introduction of the student to a future correspondent or employer in the target country. The three obligatory sections are Leisure interests (from the Lifestyles theme), Career to Date and Career Aspirations (both from the theme of Education and Work).
Formal register and a high degree of written accuracy are required. Indeed the task has been selected to provide the focus for discussion of style and accuracy with the students and to act as the stimulus for the revision/teaching of specific areas of grammar. The section on Leisure interests would be written mainly in the present tense and encourages revision of that tense and the introduction of less common verbs and structures e.g. reflexive verbs. The section on Career to Date would be written mainly in the past tense and would allow for the revision and extension of past tenses, including at Higher the Pluperfect tense and the combination of the Imperfect and Perfect tenses (in French). The final section on Career Aspirations would allow for revision and extension of the future and conditional tenses and the role of modal verbs.
In preparation both for the initial assessment of the internal writing task and for any subsequent reassessment, the student is given a high level of support from the teacher. Preparation for the initial assessment would involve the teacher/lecturer and student in preparing a piece of written work on each of the three sections of the Personal Record of Achievement. This would involve whole class work¸ developing from what the student is able to say on each topic, and brainstorming new suggestions in terms of vocabulary and grammatical structures. The work on each section would be rounded off by the production of the student’s first piece of writing on the topic, probably as a homework activity.
This draft would be subject to detailed correction and the student would be encouraged to redraft the original version, so that he/she has a good and accurate copy. Once this process has been completed for each of the three sections, the student is ready for the assessment, which requires the student to write the complete Personal Record of Achievement under controlled conditions, with the aid of a dictionary but without access to the preparatory drafts.
When the teacher corrects the first attempt at the assessment, annotation is used as opposed to detailed correction. In other words the teacher should underline errors and indicate to the student in English what areas need to be improved before a reassessment is attempted. The discussion between teacher and student will focus on points for improvement, which may include spelling, grammatical accuracy, range of vocabulary and language structure, presentation, structure and development of content. This is a clear context for using linguistic terminology for a specific purpose.
Prior to the reassessment, the teacher offers further support to the student by helping the student to redraft the original attempt. Such support might include referring the student back to the ‘good copy’ of each section and a short ‘grammar input’, where the teacher puts on OHT a selection of the errors occurring in the written task and encourages the students to identify why certain parts are underlined as errors, e.g. j’ai sorti. Reassessment is conducted under the original controlled conditions, i.e. with the aid of a dictionary but without access to the previous drafts.
With this level of support and the opportunity to redraft the initial attempt, students should improve the written accuracy of their work and produce an accurate piece of writing that will fulfil the requirements for the unit award and can also serve as a basis for the speaking assessment.
In the speaking assessment, the students are required to give a prepared presentation on a topic of their choice (selected from the prescribed themes and topics) and then to proceed into a discussion with the teacher, which must move the discussion into a theme and topic(s) other than the one from which the student has chosen to start. In preparation for this speaking assessment, it is likely that students will look to the pieces of written work that they have produced in the course of the year as the basis for the prepared presentation. Indeed, during the prepared presentation, students can bring with them written support in the form of five headings of up to eight words each in the target language. This is recognition of the supportive link between the skills of speaking and writing and is intended to help the students present their thoughts in a clear and structured manner.
The concept behind Supported Writing, with its emphasis on discussion leading to redrafting, is that students should be encouraged to check the accuracy of their written work against their knowledge of the grammar system. In this way the role of writing as a support for learning about grammar, and as a support for the other productive skill of speaking, is acknowledged and encouraged. The links between Supported Writing in Modern Languages and the writing process in English are discussed in Booklet B, Section 3.
The important role played by knowledge of the grammar system is further underlined by the production of a Grammar Grid (Appendix B of the Arrangements Document) and accompanying explanatory notes (Appendix 6 of the Subject Guide), where it is stated that: “A grammatical component is an essential part of every unit and course even though no explicit assessment of language learning is proposed. Knowledge about language is the right of every learner”. Teachers are encouraged to point out to students “grammatical concepts, which are already known in the mother tongue (nouns, verbs, prepositions, punctuation, etc.)”.
The Grammar Grid gives guidance as to the level of grammatical awareness students should have at each of the five levels. In this way it indicates the level of prior knowledge that a student should bring to each level and also what new areas are appropriate to each level. It is thus a key reference point when assessing the level of performance in the productive skills of speaking and writing, where the level of the student’s understanding of the structure of the language becomes most apparent. It could provide a useful starting point for discussion between English and Modern Languages staff, comparing the concepts and terminology expected of students at different stages, and considering also the strategies and attitudes to language learning which teachers could reinforce in their different disciplines.
Examples of teaching strategies that might usefully be shared or compared are:
• cloze procedure and multiple choice (with subsequent discussion of reasons for choices)
• text reconstruction (with discussion of cohesive elements in texts)
• genre jigsaws (with discussion of identifying features of tense, vocabulary and typography)
• rewriting of texts (with a focus on the effects of changes in tense, person and formality)
• diagrams and mindmaps (with a focus on the structure of arguments and reports)
• group writing and ‘writing conferences’ (with a focus on audience, purpose and precision in expression).
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Grammar, Reading and Writing in Modern Languages S4-6. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved September 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=501.
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