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Stretching our high attaining students

I decided to write this blog post because too often, when I chat to my fellow colleagues either at conferences, subject meetings, or various social media platform, I am asked the same question: ‘How do you stretch your high-attainers?’ 

In general, we can identify our high attaining students in our classrooms quite easily. Although some of them might be more modest about their abilities, they tend to display the following characteristics… 

They are the students who exhibit strong qualities such as attentiveness, excellent concentration, precise imitation, rapid recognition of patterns, and the ability to hold complex or longer sentences in their memory, which they then can articulate quite fluently. 

These students also have easier time articulating longer words and distinguishing between unfamiliar phonetic sounds (phonemes). They are always keen, enjoy learning languages and will often choose to continue learning languages even further at A – Level and beyond.

They are more adept at observation, pattern recognition, and vocabulary acquisition.

So how can we, the teachers, harness our knowledge of these top-performing learners in a way that will be advantageous for them?  

To address the question, my answer is always to start with your curriculum!

Curriculum design:

I, personally, don’t believe there is only one ‘correct’ approach to language teaching. The way we choose to teach depends on our specific context, our class, our students, our setting… 

In cases of the best teaching, I have observed myself, it is often a combination of methods, therefore whatever is the teaching ‘method’ of your choice, be it a textbook, TPS, EPI, parallel text, didactic approach, when mapping out your curriculum, ask yourselves this question:

“Is our curriculum designed in a way that it caters for all of our learners, in other words, does it provide the necessary scaffolding for our lower attaining students and the desired stretch / challenge for our high attaining students?”

With the focus on your high-attainers, have you asked yourselves these questions and factored in the following teaching techniques?

  • Retrieval Practice: when completing retrieval practice, how do we challenge our most able students? 

For example: what about asking the students to change the tenses? Using different persons or register, justify or give a reason? 

Or when using translation as RP task, we could ask our high-performing students instead of translating the sentence: ‘ I saw lots of countries.’, this sentence: ‘Last year we visited many countries.’ – here we have increased the challenge as the student needs to use 1st person plural, invert the verb as well as remember the irregular past participle of ‘besuchen’. 

In the upcoming Language Show (Saturday, 11th November 13.30h), I will be talking about ‘Effective questioning in the Language classroom’ as I believe, the way we question our learners is important not only in terms of C4U but also stretching them.

  • Questioning: when asking students questions, do we (in accordance with the notion of adaptive / responsive teaching) in lieu of using a random ‘cold calling’, plan and match our questions to our students? Do we use targeted questioning?

For example: Instead of formulating your question like this: ‘Was möchtest du heute machen?’ considering asking it like this and target your high-attainer: ‘Wenn du Zeit hättest, was würdest du am liebsten heute machen?’

  • Oral and written tasks: have we planned for open-ended tasks, so our higher attaining students can be stretched? How do we formulate the task, so it is stretching them? What about creative writing? Have we provided them with ‘models of excellence’, so they know what they are aiming for?

For example: what about wording your written task like this:

Das Thema: Mein Traumurlaub

‘Stellen Sie sich vor, Sie planen Ihren Traumurlaub. Beschreiben Sie in einem Aufsatz, wohin Sie reisen möchten, warum Sie diesen Ort ausgewählt haben, welche Aktivitäten Sie planen, und wie Sie sich fühlen, wenn Sie endlich dort sind. Geben Sie auch an, mit wem Sie diesen Traumurlaub verbringen möchten und was Sie aus dieser Erfahrung mitnehmen werden.’

This could be also applied to an oral presentation.

  • Extra listening and reading input: do we provide opportunities for these? Do we have the necessary resources? 

Here on my Wakelet are examples of extra listening / reading / video apps, students can use. They are for German, but many are multilingual, and the language can be changed to the language you teach.

  • Projects and competitions: could these be planned for in our curriculum?

Examples: film and book projects, cultural projects with history, geography, art, music, cooking, and baking; just to name a few.

For competitions, join Association for Language Learning (ALL), they send a weekly newsletter which lists all different competitions that are running for variety of languages – all in one place, how to enter them, submission dates, rules etc.

Here are examples of some:

  • Setting: are we able to set / group our classes based on their attainment or prior attainment? If so, how have we planned for this? What adaptations have we made in our curriculum design? Have we adapted our lessons / resources and how did we adapt them?

  • Grammar: how have we planned for teaching Grammar? High-attainers often want to know how the language works; there is nothing wrong with teaching Grammar explicitly. They want to speak about other people not just themselves, so teaching them verb paradigm is important as are cases, genders, adjectival endings and other ‘sexy’ phrases and idioms. How do we do this and when?

  • Independent work: are there opportunities for our high attaining students to work independently? 

There are many websites (many are free), where students can work independently, in class or take the language outside of the classroom and enjoy the learning and exposure to it at home.

Examples of some websites: lyricstraining, e-library from Goethe Institut, seedlang, readlang, easy German, Netflix series…

I, personally, believe in teaching to the top, all of my students and scaffolding up. I have high expectations for all and tend to push them, as I have come to observe, from my almost 20 years of teaching experience, that many – even my lower-attaining students, once they believe in themselves often exceed what is ‘expected’ of them.

However, I wanted to write a post, solely focusing on high-attainers. So, here it is!

Any ideas, experiences and comments are welcome. 😀


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