L&T Session E – Diversity and mixed ability at modular and programme level. Supporting Ab Initio language students’ transitions

Cinzia Bacilieri, Sam Hellmuth,Thomas Jochum-Critchley, Maria Muradas Casas, Nadine Saupe – Language and Linguistic Science

Abstract  | Presentation Session E | Forum magazine article Recording (University of York login required)


Session A 1

This workshop focussed on strategies used to tackle diversity and mixed ability among students on language degrees in the Department of Language and Linguistic Science. These programmes have learning outcomes which combine high language proficiency, knowledge about the culture, history and socio-political issues in the countries where the language is spoken, as well as more generic skills in culture-specific critical thinking and written/oral communication. All of the programmes combine study of a modern foreign language with another subject (linguistics, or e.g. History).

The programmes allow for two entry routes into the language component: post-A-level and ab initio. This yields a group of students with multiple layers of mixed ability: different prior learning contexts, different numbers of languages learned/being learned, different levels of knowledge about language and different levels of prior accredited language proficiency (including e.g. students with prior GCSE in ab initio route).

As a result each student has different individual learning needs, as well as different levels of motivation. This diversity if addressed by building a learning community, via three strategies: i) portfolio learning, ii) peer mentoring and iii) flexible teaching at Stage 2.

Portfolio learning (Thomas J-C, and Cinzia B)Session A 1 9
A ‘purposeful collection of student work’ with reflection on the learning process, which can help develop autonomous learning. This is used in the Stage 1 ‘Ab Initio Language Skills’ module (30 credits, year-long). Portfolio counts as 60% of module assessment. Cohort sizes are very small: 6-8 students. The portfolio approach has been implemented in a slightly different way for German and Italian, and these two approaches were presented as a comparative case study: the German portfolio gave students a lot of choice over the content and order of tasks, whereas the Italian portfolio was more structured, with a specific order in which tasks should be attempted; both models included a large amount of one-to-one feedback (oral and written) and a reflective component. Student feedback showed that students needed support with accessing authentic materials, but showed a very high level of engagement; the students found the reflective task repetitive and didn’t fully understand its benefits; staff saw clear development in the students’ language use and qualty of writing.

Peer mentoring (Nadine Saupe)
First year ab initio students are offered the option of having a second year student as a peer mentor. The mentors receive training in coaching/mentoring and build up useful skills and experience for their CV. They are provided with a clear structure for each session, and agreed rules of mentoring etiquette. Sessions are not ‘policed’, but a survey reveals that mentoring meetings generally happen once a week, in a library study space, and that the time is used mostly to discuss content of seminars and grammar points, followed closely by conversation practice in the target language. The most successful mentoring relationships met regularly with clearly defined roles, and focussed on language practice. A few negative experiences have been reported, and in each case the mentee has only contacted their mentor irregularly or at ‘crisis’ points, so that a relationship is not built up; some students have suggested that groups of three might be a better way to work. Overall feedback shows that ab initio students value the input they receive from their mentors, and that the mentors also report a benefit to their own language proficiency.

Session A 1 4

Flexible learning (Maria M-C)
The two groups of students – ab initio and post-A-level – come together at the start of Stage 2 and complete the rest of the degree together. Maria M-C presented a case study of her experience delivering the second year Spanish history module ‘Historical Memory in the Spanish-speaking World’, which delivers of content and language in an integrated format. Teaching the two groups of students together required a flexible approach, based on ‘differentiated instruction’, with the teacher as facilitator and the student as primary focus of instruction. Lectures has to be refined to be more interactive, with more visuals to allow students to infer both language and content from images when needed, grading of language used (e.g. more use of cognate vocabulary shared with English). Maria showed sample materials from the lessons at different stages, illustrating how the approach worked. Student activities had to be broken down into differentiated tasks, which could be tackled by students with different levels of language proficiency.

The closing questions for discussion were:

  • how could you implement a portfolio component in your programme(s)?
  • could a mentoring scheme across year groups improve the learning experience for your students?
  • how could you build reflection and/or collaborative learning into your teaching?

Sam Hellmuth, Language and Linguistic Science, University of York 

2 thoughts on “L&T Session E – Diversity and mixed ability at modular and programme level. Supporting Ab Initio language students’ transitions

  1. Pingback: Annual Learning and Teaching Conference: One size does not fit all: ensuring all students reach their potential | York Learning & Teaching Forum

  2. Pingback: L&T conference 2015: One size does not fit all: ensuring all students reach their potential | York Learning & Teaching Forum

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