Last week I began an experiment with my year 7 and 8 French students that was sparked by reading Pat Goodson’s book and her strategy of copying as a way of seeing the way that ideas are put together. I went into class with the idea of using the copying strategy in conjunction with some dictation in French as a springboard for developing writing skills in French.
We began the class by brainstorming key words for the topic that we had covered the previous week. I then began dictating a short paragraph in French where I encouraged the students to write down the passage as best they could, using phonetic spelling for words they weren’t familiar with. Once they had done this, I put the passage on the board and students copied it directly into their books. The next step was for students to underline vocabulary that was unfamiliar to them. It was at this point I began asking questions about the vocabulary in the passage including;
‘What cognates can you identify?’, ‘How does knowledge of these cognates help you identify the meaning of the passage?’, ‘What do you notice about the structure of the sentences?,’ ‘Where are the nouns and adjectives in the sentence? Is this different to English?’
After talking about the questions and listing new words on the board, along with possible translations, we spent some time translating the passage together into English as a group. As we went about the translation we were talking about the possible strategies and approaches students used as they looked at each sentence to translate and I used the key question ‘What strategies are you using to help you understand the meaning of this sentence?’ This was an important step of the process as students identified strategies such as using their prior knowledge, identifying cognates, using their dictionary, and understanding words in context. One of the key things we discussed was the fact that we can understand the meaning of the sentence without having to translate every individual word, something that students sometimes find difficult to accept as they become focused on needing to translate every individual word correctly. We also talked about the fact that sometimes words cannot be directly translated and therefore creating meaning by reading the whole sentence for context is important.
After we had translated the vocabulary and the passage, I then invited students to write their own passage, using the vocabulary and the sentence structure of the passage as a starting point for their own writing. Students were able to complete a written passage, asking questions about the kinds of words they could build into their writing and also making connections about the word order of sentences as well.
Earlier this week I handed out an end-of-term evaluation for students to complete, something I do at the end of each term. I ask students to write about their work throughout the term, to reflect on the strategies they have used and the strategies they plan on using in the future. I also invite them to write about the teaching and learning activities that have assisted them in learning French over the term and ask them to write about things they think might help them further, or things they might like to do more frequently. There was some good feedback from students in the evaluations about the copying to write strategy, with a number of students writing about how the activity had helped them learn and develop their writing skills. Students responded that they liked being able to identify what they knew and how they could also identify new words by using strategies or looking for cognates, while another student said she liked to lean by doing the process of attempting something independently, working through a model with me and the class and then working independently again. Other students identified that the dictation, copying and unpacking of the structure helped them to see the way they could structure their own sentences and lots of students requested that this is an activity we do more frequently.
The concept of both dictation and of writing out passages is nothing new, however, for me the key elements that made this copying to write activity successful was the explicit focus on the strategies that students might use at each stage and the questioning and discussion about the structure of sentences and of the elements they might build into their own writing. The feedforward for me is to build these kind of explicit learning opportunities into the classes that I have for my 7s and 8s next term, and building more complexity into both the dictation and the writing elements.