Know knows and unknown knowns


I have always wondered if it’s possible for students to teach themselves a modern foreign language.  My concern has always been that it would be so tricky for students to find their way around the complexities of language learning without becoming frustrated or despondent.  Moreover, I always wondered how they would cope with trying to pronounce words that they had never come across before. With all this in mind,  I set about a little experiment.  I have 2 Y8 (students aged 12-13) classes.  I decided I would allow one class to teach themselves with guidance from me for one lesson and the other class would be taught by me.  It was hardly the most scientific of experiments but I was keen to see what would happen.

Prior to the lesson:

Each class had revised how to form regular -er verbs.  I felt that had they not had this grammar knowledge the task could have become overbearing for those that were ‘teaching themselves’

The lesson:

Objective: to be able to say where members of your family work and what job they do.

The class that were not having the traditional language teacher imput were given specific things to find out.

How to say he works/ she works as

How to say she is/ he is

How to say he works/she works in

How to say 10 places of work

The class could use whatever materials they needed.  I left them to it.

My classroom is set up with tables in groups of 4.  The class soon got to work looking for ways to discover the words required for the task.  Many used iPads but others rather more cannily selected text books and in a large number of cases traditional French dictionaries were used.  Inevitably some students declared the task to be easy and went straight to Google Translate.

After 5 – 10 minutes I started to discuss each group’s findings with them.  Most groups struggled with the tasks that included a verb (note to self, more verb work needed) but the discussion that ensued was really fruitful.  How do we work out each element of a regular verb?  What do we need first?  Where will we find the infinitive? All of this reinforcing work that we had previously done in class  and all very valuable.

When it came to the nouns questions arose about gender and how to find out if a word was a noun in the first place (further note to self more dictionary work required!) Some groups looked words up using an online dictionary and then double checked using a paper dictionary.  This gave them confidence that the words they had found were correct.  Google translate user largely found (mainly because I told them) that what they had written was nonsense.  Google translate was soon sidelined by most groups – this was a good lesson to learn!!

Pronunciation was the tricky bit, as predicted, for all groups.  The French word to work is travailler and is reasonably hard to pronounce. Most students tried to rely on their knowledge of French to get them through this element of the task some students used the accessibility feature voice on the iPad that enables text to be read out to the user.  Text to voice has come a long way and although the French accent isn’t perfect it’s pretty good. Try it out for yourself. In my view, students would need much more time with this tool in order to perfect the pronunciation.  In fact, activities would be required to help students achieve the pronunciation required and one asks oneself whether it would be worth giving up the required time to achieve this when it could be achieved in more efficient ways.


Is it possible for students to ‘teach themselves’ French? Yes it is.  I say this with the caveat that pronunciation undoubtedly suffers.  The class that I taught in the traditional way have a better grasp of the pronunciation than the independent learner group.  Both groups of students retained the information well but I think the independent learners have shown better recall overall of all elements of the task especially the grammar aspects.  As a teacher, I enjoyed having the time to have the conversation with students and being able to push them in certain directions without giving them the answers, I think some really strong learning took place at these points in the lesson and I need to find more ways to ensure that this happens more regularly in class. The independent learners worked at a much slower pace and there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact I applaud this but the curriculum is packed an we have to get through ‘stuff’ in order that students can sit tests, exams and all the other usual education nonsense.

Would I switch to this method of working from now on? No, not all the time but it clearly does have value and I will continue to incorporate it into my planning from time to time. I enjoyed the discussions with students and they enjoyed the discovery element of the task but the poor pronunciation from the independent learners concerned me a little.  One thing this has made me consider more strongly is the idea of flipping my classroom which will enable the discussions but should cut out some of my concerns about pronunciation so, watch this space.




4 thoughts on “Know knows and unknown knowns

  1. I love that you tried this “experiment” in your own class! As you know, my own experiences with trying to teach myself German were hit and miss, and much of what you saw with your students echoes my own frustrations in learning a language “on my own”. I look forward to reading about where you go next!

    • Thanks Sharon. I loved the fact that I got more of a chance to discuss learning with my students, in fact I was surprised in some ways by the things that did come out of my experiment!

  2. Great post, Rachel with quite a few takeaways. We’re being encouraged to consider more child-led learning and I try to offer each second lesson of the week as an independent lesson for Y5 and 6, with the aim of demonstrating their learning in one way or another. It also fascinates me that some immature children in Y5 simply cannot self-motivate and need constant badgering.

    • Thanks Rosie. I think the earlier on in a child’s learning that we give them these opportunities the more beneficial they will be. I was actually surprised by what I learnt from my experiment but equally encouraged to do more of the same.

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