Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding. Without that, even the best ideas can fall short of their potential or even worse fall flat on their face!
This is what I can see went wrong when I tried to introduce a translation exercise into my advanced class a few weeks ago. You might remember I mentioned them in another post about storybuilding.
So what did I try to do and why?
Guy Cook, in his thought-provoking lecture ‘Translation in Language’, explained that the goal of most learners of English is to be an effective conduit of information between their native language and English. My skills as a native English speaker are not what my students want or need, it is the ability to switch between their L1 and English that makes learning English worthwhile and will help them to get a good job, at least statistically.
So my idea was to have an exercise that put translation front and centre, an exercise that asked learners to take issues from a newspaper that they might be familiar with and try to re-write them in English. My hope was that this might really help to improve this very important skill in foreign language learning. On top of this, it would also hopefully serve to highlight a few phrases and words that might be missing in their vocabulary as well as challenging them to make their passive reading knowledge more active through translation and writing.
So how did I do this?
I took a pile of recent local newspapers and L1/L2 dictionaries into the classroom and explained what I wanted to do. The students were given a couple of minutes to choose the article they wanted to translate and then work through it asking for the teacher’s help as and when necessary.
So where did it go wrong?
I’ve got to say this ended up being almost a complete disaster and to cut a long story short I’ll just list the errors I made:
- Motivation/Personalisation – This was an almost by-the-book translation exercise with the learners having nothing personally invested in the work.
- Groupings – For some reason I still can’t figure out, I had everyone working individually. This turned an already difficult activity to ‘sell’ the students on into a deadly boring and uncommunicative exercise. Bad teacher, bad!
- Level of Difficulty – I had assumed (always the first mistake) that a local paper wouldn’t present too many difficulties in its level of Spanish and would therefore be of an acceptably challenging level for a B2/C1 class to translate. As it turns out, I had overestimated some of my learners’ L1 vocabulary. Added to this, I had unknowingly chosen newspapers known for not using the best grammar and syntax. Garbage in, garbage out!
- Lack of Scaffolding – Quite simply, this was a new activity for the learners and regardless of whether they are A1 or C1 on the CEFR scale, they needed to be guided and the activity needed to be built from sentences upward. Throwing them in at the deep end of “translate a whole article” was never going to work except with the most autonomous and gung-ho of learners.
So would I try a translation exercise again?
Yes. I still firmly believe that we have to acknowledge the important role that L1 plays in shaping our learners when they are learning English. Just about all of an L2 is learned by making mental connections with L1 and if a teacher ignores this, they are simply not on the same page as their learners.
What would I do differently to improve this exercise?
Stay tuned for part 2. 🙂