In my previous post, I explained the almost unmitigated disaster that was my first attempt to do a translation exercise with a monolingual teenage group of around B2/C1 ability (according to the CEFR). This was my 2nd attempt at the activity.
So what did I change?
Well a lot actually. First of all, and this might be cheating, I changed the class. I tried this with a younger group of B1 students. I also started off by explaining all the steps of what we were going to do so that the learners would not be left bored wondering “Why am I doing this?”
We started with a free-writing exercise with a bit of variation. I suggested the topic of ‘English’ (whether it was English-speaking music, movies, classes, teachers, etc. was up to the students) but I made it clear that if they wanted to write about a different topic they were welcome to. The main variation of this writing was that it had to be in L1, in this case Spanish. I put two provisos; all writing for this class should be double-spaced and it was very important that handwriting was as legible as possible.
After this I had something like 12 pieces of writing in L1. I then put the students into groups of 2 or 3 and gave them one piece of writing – not their own – to translate into English.
While I did have an L1/L2 dictionary ready what I set up was much better – the help board! On the whiteboard I had two columns, ‘Spanish’ and ‘English’. If a word or phrase came up that the learners couldn’t translate, they had to put it up on the board, leave a space in their translation and wait for other members of the class to write up the translation if they could. I would use the dictionary to check these translations if necessary or if the whole class was drawing a blank.
Why did I take this approach?
Well, after my first attempt I felt that I needed a more forgiving crowd than the apathetic, older teenage crowd that v1.0 had failed with.
The free-writing was a way of easing the students into an exercise that they might otherwise have been resistant to. Trying to get teenagers to do writing at all is a challenge but doing writing in a foreign language is usually seen as too much like hard work (“es un viaje” as my Argentinian students are wont to say). The L1 writing also produced texts to work on that were at least moderately interesting for the learners.
By putting the students into groups I made this a group learning exercise. On this point I would like to draw your attention to a talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave about changing educational paradigms (See the whole seminar at the bottom of this post, here’s the link for the specific section of the seminar relevant to what I’m talking about). We learn and work together in the real world so why is it so important that we work separately in the classroom or even in the tests?
The teacher-centred benefit for the students working in groups is that once a group had finished one translation I could give them another one and it would give me time during the lesson to review and correct their collaborative translation effort. This was also aided by the ‘help board’, which meant that I was not the first person to go to as soon as the learners hit a barrier. This wasn’t immediately successful as a lot of the students aren’t entirely sure what to do when they are given autonomy but at least by the end of the class they had thankfully stopped asking permission to get up and write something on the board. Baby steps. 🙂
By holding back the dictionaries this also forced collaboration and got the students to recognize each other as fountains of information. This is a bigger problem I’m trying to overcome… how many times have you been asked the same question two, three even four times because the students aren’t listening to each other, don’t listen to the question and therefore don’t register that they are listening (or not) to an answer they themselves are about to ask for.
So where will this not work?
Well obviously this approach depends on a common L1 among the learners so those of you with multi-lingual L1 classes will have to come up with something different. For some ideas you should look at Ceri Jones’s article, a second look at translation, which focuses translation exercises in multi-lingual groups.
So what went wrong?
Very little really. Due to the fact that this was the first time I was doing this, I made myself a little more available to the students than I would have liked but everyone needs training wheels when they start something new. Having more free time would have allowed me to look at what they are producing in more detail but once we’ve done this a few more times we should get a little faster at it and that might allow time at the end to review various phrases, grammar, etc.