As the availability and affordability of mobile devices has increased, the obvious next stage was to develop a vocabulary app capable of incorporating and building on this research. Such an app would provide young learners with a language and literacy tool, as well as a support tool for content in different subjects. This approach is critical given the time constraints placed upon subject teachers or, as mentioned above, their lack of formal preparedness in addressing this particular but growing learning need. Indeed, given the super-diverse learning needs of today’s multilingual classrooms, subject teachers are under great pressure to deliver highly differentiated learning objectives within inflexible time constraints. To support everyone involved in the teaching and learning process, Keywords Biology presents the relevant keywords (target language) in context and in the learner’s own language. At a very minimum, this language support will give young learners a basic concept of what the content teacher is discussing in class and gradually help them to scaffold their acquisition of language within related topics of the subject and then within different subjects across the curriculum.
Science was chosen as the first subject for this project in view of the prominence it plays within the school curriculum and in light of the attention employers are beginning to place on relevant science skills. At the same time, the performance of young people in Science in some prominent English speaking countries is falling on international league tables (OECD, 2010). Indeed, the ability to engage with and understand scientific concepts is inextricably linked with effective communication. Good science writing skills require amongst others, the ability to present the findings of experiments and draw conclusions from data. In order to build the relevant language and literacy skills of young learners so they can complete such tasks, Keywords English takes the premise of understanding the keyword in context as the starting point for this learning process.
- Overview of learning activities
Given the multilingual diversity of our classrooms, the linguistic repertoires of young learners and the growing evidence that suggests parallel texts have the capacity to develop competence in the language being acquired (English – L2), Keywords Biology presents parallel texts at relevant stages to help develop proficiency in L2.
The objective here is to foster a bi-literacy approach and so encourage literacy skills and strategies available in L1 to become identifiable in L2. While this is easier when both languages use the same writing system, for non-Roman writing systems, such as Mandarin Chinese, it is still possible to transfer a whole range of skills in decoding and reading from the first language to the second. If learners are literate in one language, they already know that text carries meaning which is broken up into segments, such as words or characters, and that such text is laid out on a page or screen in accordance with standard rules.
In addition, for learners who are not literate in their first language, Keywords Biology uses parallel texts with audio support to allow learning to be shared at home with parents, older siblings, or peers and friends from the same ethnic or language group. This can facilitate informal learning and support learning that cannot be facilitated in a mainstream classroom environment. Keywords Biology uses parallel texts in all instructions throughout the app as well as in the introductory and vocabulary section,
where the target language is presented in context.
As highlighted by Trinity College’s underpinning research, a wide range of vocabulary both in depth and breadth is critical for young learners seeking to develop competency in the usage of academic English. Given the frequency with which certain words appear across the curriculum, the vocabulary section begins to extrapolate the keywords central to understanding the topic at hand and presents the word along with its form, phonetic transcript and a contextualized graphic (a valid non-linguistic clue) to aid learning. The phonetic transcript was included in this case to support Mandarin speakers. Given the prominence Keywords Biology gives to contextualized learning, the vocabulary section defines each keyword in the context of the topic before offering an example of each keyword, again in context.
Parallel texts are used throughout the vocabulary section to support learning. While skilled teachers exploit opportunities to tap into areas of prior knowledge to build on learning, it cannot be assumed that all learners in a super-diverse, multilingual environment have had exposure to some type of continuous formative learning that is transferrable. Parallel texts in this instance foster informal learning and encourage young learners to seek clarification and understanding outside of a formal classroom setting, where again the time constraints on a subject teacher prohibit such an exploration of keywords that some young learners require.
Even within an English language classroom setting, pronunciation is often the one area of teaching that is neglected, as it is usually perceived to be a difficult area to teach. However, since English is not a phonetic language so that looking at the written word often does not help learners to say it, some form of pronunciation teaching is required to ensure that learners can communicate intelligibly. This is critical because knowing a word also means knowing how to pronounce it.
While a focus on phonemes (sounds) is often where English language teachers start when they teach pronunciation, incorrect words stress often leads to more problems with communication than the incorrect use of an individual phoneme (sound). Indeed, given the challenges many English language learners in multilingual classrooms encounter with both English and subject matter content, Keywords Biology takes word stress as the starting point for pronunciation. In addition, for learners whose first language uses a non-Roman script or for those who may not be literate in their first language, any attempt to introduce a phonemic alphabet at this stage was deemed to be counter-productive.
Most people find speaking publicly in a language they are learning to be a daunting task. Discussing content matter in an academic setting can be extremely stressful for a child or a young person. In the pronunciation section, Keywords Biology uses the self-record and playback function to allow learners to practise pronouncing the keywords in private in order to build their confidence, which in turn encourages them to participate in a mainstream classroom setting.
(d) Word Order
This is the first time learners have the opportunity to test their comprehension of the keywords. Not only are the keywords presented in context, but the word order activity tests their knowledge of sentence level syntax and encourages them to think about sentence level construction. It is critical for them to gain an understanding of syntax, as this in turn will give them control over their own writing and support them in writing coherent sentences, which in time will become longer pieces of text. Once they establish competency, they will be able to explore alternative options and self-evaluate other pieces of writing they produce.
As a support aid, the activity contains vital literacy clues that work to reduce the cognitive load on young learners. If learners are familiar with basic punctuation rules (a capital letter at the start of the sentence and a full stop at the end), then identifying the first word or lexical set will encourage them to engage with the activity. Since the activity has a high level of interactivity and a game-like feel, it also suits a variety of different learning styles.
Knowing a word means knowing how to spell it. The more thoroughly learners know a word, the more they will be able to recognise it, spell it, define it and then use it appropriately in a variety of different contexts. While weekly spelling tests are common at primary level, they all but disappear at second level. It is often assumed that young people have the relevant strategies to decode words along with the appropriate study skills and motivatio to learn the spelling of a word independently. Exam results at national and international levels challenge such assumptions.
Keywords Biology introduces spelling as a distinct activity to remind learners of its importance. Given the challenges spelling poses for literacy learners or those unfamiliar with the Roman script, only six of the twelve keywords are tested. This makes the task more manageable and achievable. Learners are asked to identify the missing letters and need to use a number of strategies to fill in the gaps.
Again learners have the option to record themselves saying the word they have just spelt. While not relevant to all learners, this option may prompt those struggling to pronounce keywords to practise further. It also supports pair or small group work as it can encourage learners to listen to the pronunciation of others.
(f&g) Multi-choice & Gap fill
Once learners are familiar with the keywords as words (vocabulary definitions in context, pronunciation, spelling) and their place in the syntax of a sentence (word order), they can begin to combine their language knowledge with an overall comprehension of the topic.
(f) Multi-choice activity
Staying with sentence level syntax, as the task level itself has become more complex, the multi-choice activity uses phrasing close to the opening description. This repetition reinforces the previous learning. The challenge comes from the distracters, which should be plausible answers to the new language learner. For instance, the statement, “Green plants absorb _________ in the process of photosynthesis”, provides four options:
- carbon dioxide
Each is a substance or a chemical, and each is a noun that would syntactically fit. The learner must know the meaning of the correct term to distinguish it from the others, and the learner must understand the meaning of the whole statement to choose correctly. This combines word knowledge with comprehension.
The record option gives learners the opportunity to record themselves reading a full sentence. While the app has not looked at sentence stress in this version, it does provide an opportunity for learners to work in small groups and to listen and evaluate the pronunciation of one other.
(g) Gap fill activity
The Gap fill activity takes comprehension further by presenting the opening description from the introduction twice, each time with six of the keywords left blank, and each blank has a dropdown list of four options. Repetition of the introductory description has the same function as the conclusion in a formal piece of writing; it restates the opening assertion. In reaching the conclusion, the learner/reader is now ready to absorb the statement with knowledge and clarity. And since to know a word is to encounter it seven times, the repetition of the introduction stabilizes the learner’s knowledge of the keywords in a familiar context. The now familiar distractors serve the same function as they do in the MCQ activity.
While large areas of pronunciation have not been addressed in this version of Keywords Biology, notably phonemes, sentence stress, intonation and connected speech, there may be opportunities in support classes to draw learners’ attention to these areas. Learners need an awareness of how assimilation, elision and liaison affect pronunciation, and this final text, with which some learners will now be familiar, can provide some examples. Pronunciation is more than just producing sounds; learners also need to be able to listen and identify sounds and stress patterns when others speak. Again, the record and playback feature provides opportunities for one to one, pair or group learning around these areas.
(h) Conclusion – free writing activity
Given the number of controlled activities in the app, this is the first opportunity learners have to produce text independently. The instruction, which consists of three sentences in a rather extended piece of text, contains multiple options. An accompanying parallel text is used to ensure that learners understand the multiple tasks involved in the instruction. The graphic, or non- linguistic clue, acts as a reminder of the learning that has taken place and provides clarity as to the forthcoming writing task
Depending on their level of literacy competency, this task will be extremely challenging for some learners. While some learners studying independently may chose to write a paragraph, the task will need to be differentiated for others. One or two sentences may be sufficient for some learners. It can be used by others to spell some of the keywords, which can then be shared. Alternatively, if learners want to work on their speaking skills, they can record themselves describing the process of photosynthesis and again share with their friends or teacher.
Getting learners to attempt to write and encouraging them to share it and give feedback to each other is the first stage of the writing process, a theme that we will take up in our Byte Papers and blog posts. At this point, it is important for young people to realise, especially those with literacy needs, that the first attempt is not necessarily the final one. Numerous drafts of the sentence, paragraph or essay will be required for every writing task. Sharing with friends will help them to see that writing need not be a solitary process and that each attempt will bring them closer to their goal.
The glossary section provides learners with the list of keywords central to understanding the topic at hand. If learners require further revision or clarification of any of the keywords, they are simply brought back to the definition screen in the vocabulary section, where they can quickly review the keywords they have learnt.