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"The Privilege of A-Level Teaching "

This blog post was written by Lucy Dreznin.



 

About the author of the post:



Lucy Dreznin is a former Head of German and Curriculum lead at secondary school and sixth form level. Having worked previously in the performing arts, she is devoted to empowering the teaching profession and developing languages curriculum through authentic materials and a variety of cultural resources.  She regularly presents at language teaching events and conferences and gained her NPQ in Lead Teaching in 2023. She is currently working as a consultant for the National Consortium of Languages Education (NCLE) at University College London.




 

It is true what they say (whoever they might be): Teaching A Level is a privilege. After the tumult of settling pupils into their language learning at Key Stage 3, followed by the ever-perplexing challenge of helping them achieve a qualification at Key Stage 4, comes the reward of Key Stage 5. We have nurtured the independent learners, the linguists who will bear the torch for languages, the ‘global’ citizens.  


For us language educators, there are clear reasons to strive for opportunities to teach at Advanced Level:


  • The specification comprises content across a whole host of topics intrinsic to the target language culture.

  • A classroom environment, in which there is continuous scope for debate, in-depth thought and analysis, invigorates both teacher and student.

  • The intellectual rigour of the specification actively challenges students to draw on prior language learning to not only communicate their ideas, but to make new meaning of that knowledge.

  • The opportunity to personalise short, medium- and long-term planning is a process largely informed by the students’ responses in the interim to every lesson.


I have taught five different cohorts for German A-Level. In a group, there have been four. In my latest cohort, there was a single student.

Characteristically, no two cohorts have been the same. We could, of course, make a similar assertion about our classes of any age, year to year. I do feel that the unique character of each group takes on a certain salience at Advanced Level. Perhaps it is because the groups are typically smaller, allowing for a more consistent learning environment. Perhaps it is the allure of the curriculum, a ‘world’ in which the languages educator can more widely recognise their own value and belief systems. I don’t wish to be reductive here, but, when it comes to establishing expectations in teaching practice and classroom management, consistency and recognition of self are fundamental.


As a former A Level student and now as a language educator and advocate, the real pleasure truly lies in the latter. Adaptive and responsive teaching is a broad-based term, one of which the education community is well-aware. Yet a broad term can never capture the inherent complexity of this aspect of pedagogy. It is well-understood that it presents an even greater challenge for language educators. However, the foundation for effective responsive teaching, especially at Advanced Level, is a positive, flexible, and caring teacher-student relationship.


Why are these relationships with students in your Advanced Level cohort so important at this stage of their language learning journey?


  • These students are on the cusp of young adulthood, and wish for their emotions, interests and even their possibly contradictory thoughts to be recognised in the learning environment.

  • Despite being in the throes of adolescence, these students do have a refined sense of self and an instinct for which motivates and interests them. Therefore, it is only natural that they should want to explore that further in their language learning.

  • The interactions between teacher and students harness a great energy, one which can establish a shared belief system around the power of languages and their joint responsibility as language ambassadors.


How do we create the conditions for meaningful dialogue with our Advanced Level students? Moreover, how do we ensure that this dialogue is reinforced through our classroom routines and expectations from the outset?

1.Canvas your students’ interests and level of confidence with spoken language.


Spend the first week of lessons getting to know your cohort. You will often have a group of students who have come from different settings, and therefore do not know each other. The teacher therefore plays the pivotal important role of creating an atmosphere of mutual comfort, understanding and respect. Moreover, they need to facilitate opportunities for students to interact in the target language in a non-threatening way.

One way you can do this in build a class constitution, an idea inspired by the practice of Dr Liam Printer. I also sometimes run a Top Trumps exercise and get students to evaluate their own learning character, areas of strength in their language learning, and areas of skills development. I will then give them a set of structured questions in the target language, which allows students to interview one another and rank the overall skillset of the class.


2. Make it very explicit to students: They are advanced linguists.


Empower your students from the outset with an important status of linguist, language representative, multilingual citizen. Ideally, this will have been a message reinforced to them throughout their Key Stage 3 and 4 language development, yet we cannot assume. Validating their language skills, as well as their strategic thinking, will enable your students to feel at greater ease when setting their knowledge into more challenging contexts.


3. Tap into your learners’ interests, attitudes, and reflections every single lesson.


I give this recommendation as a teacher tasked with the planning and delivery of lessons, and as an enthusiast for passionate discourse. The language teaching community has the world of resources to choose from to shape A Level teaching. Of course, the schemata of those lessons should be shaped principally by our pedagogical expertise. However, inherent within that is the knowledge we have of our learners.


Case study: My Year 12 cohort two years ago was made up of four boys, all of whom I had taught through GCSE. I had knowledge of their experience and backgrounds, and of their struggles living at home throughout COVID lockdown. Our first topic-focused lesson on family relationships formed the start of our unit on changing family structures in the German-speaking world. Once we had drawn on prior knowledge from GCSE-style questions and brainstormed infinitive verbs relevant to this subtheme, they suggested we look at articles and blog posts from German-speaking teenagers, writing their accounts of living at home and the effects this had on their relationships. Using the input from the articles, together with the list of infinitives, they formed reasons for why some teenagers may or may not get on with their families. It was an active response from my students to the contemporary world around them. As a result, we continued to revisit the impact of lockdown on family relations and self-development. This became the prism through which they learned and acquired language.


4. Scaffold resources and model your thinking for your students, just as you do for all learners.


The advanced level skillset is termed as such because, well, it is advanced and quite challenging! Think about a text you give to your Key Stage 3 learners and the ways in which you ask them to interact, even play with the input:


  • Read it aloud

  • Find the common sounds

  • Identify the verbs

  • Focus on patterns

  • Find the English cognates

  • Find the terms for

  • Spot and correct the errors

  • Answer questions about the text

  • Find your favourite words and use them in your own sentences


A playful approach to language can not only be the cornerstone of your teaching practice but equally the best way of conveying your care and enthusiasm for your students. Students may have chosen to continue with their language learning at A-Level. However, this does not mean that they are unphased by its challenges. Their curiosity for discovering and deciphering new language is implicit. Teachers must continue to model the strategic thinking required and demonstrate how to approach tasks on a step-by-step basis. Learners will feel able to draw on their existing bank of strategies from GCSE learning and use this knowledge to transform and extend their thinking.



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