Skill based instruction: A mini lesson on identification

This blog post is a little sample of how I’m changing my instructional strategies for September of the coming school year. I’m working on integrating curricular strategies on a wider scale, because (a) they’re the basis of the curriculum, (b) I’m moving to a school that is structured around cross-curricular competencies, and (c) this gets me closer to where I want to be with assessment and instruction.

The curricular skills that I see running through the levels of Core French 8-12 are:

  • identification
  • description
  • clarification
  • expressing preferences
  • comparison
  • expressing and supporting opinions
  • explaining
  • narration
  • persuasion
  • analysis

Not all skills are covered at each grade level. For example, a student in French 8 will learn to perform skills at a basic level, using common everyday language and familiar situations. They may get only as far as narration, but of very simple stories using one or two verb tenses. Much like any other skill set, once a skill is introduced it is never dropped. Students revisit them over and over again and add layers of complexity to what they have previously learned, constantly building on that foundation.

No matter whether a student is reading, writing, speaking or listening, they can work on each of these curricular skills. It also doesn’t matter what the content is – students are still working on their skills. As the content changes, they have more opportunities to practice the skills and grow. In skill-based instruction, the focus is less on the content and more on the skills. As a result, students spend a lot more time reading, writing, speaking and listening in more authentic contexts, and less time memorizing content.

My collaboration partner and I revised almost everything we did last year in French 8 and 10 to deliver our courses as a skill based program, using a range of content which changed with each unit we covered. At the same time, we piloted new programs and co-planned everything we did for those two courses. At the beginning of French 8, we start with identification. Students enter French 8 with limited communication skills, and identification helps to build a base that they can use to move forward with the other skills that require a little more complex language.

The first unit we started with in French 8 last year was called Mon Canada. For Canadian students in Canada, there were a lot of natural connections to be made but we first had to build some basic vocabulary. Using visual dictionaries as a strategy to teach vocabulary, my collaboration partner and I taught our students basic questions and answers to identify the items they needed to know in the first unit. This strategy was repeated in each unit that followed, until by the end of the course our students could use the questions and answers that had by that point become familiar pieces of communication. Most students were able to use (from memory) the basic forms of questions and answers used in identifying. A few needed prompts, and some could go beyond the basics and elaborate on the language structures they had learned.

Click here to access a downloadable PDF: Visual Dictionary Canada

Here’s an example of some basic questions and answers that students can use with vocabulary like this:

Screen Shot 2018-07-19 at 11.41.38 AM

Click here for downloadable PDF: Identification – Vocabulaire de base

For Core French 8 students, this would be a resource they would come back to over and over throughout the course. They would start with the most basic form of questions and answers (-Qu’est-ce que c’est? -C’est un/une…) and as new content is added, they can increase the range of what they are able to say by learning the remaining expressions on the page. For example, in order to talk about basic objects, students will learn about the concept of masculine and feminine nouns in French, and will start to build a knowledge base to refer to. In order to progress to talking about places, they need to be familiar with the concept of masculine and feminine as well as vowels and plurals, and know whether the place they are referring to is a city, province, state, country, continent. They will also learn how to refer to more commonplace locations such as hallways, houses, lockers, and so on. This document is not meant to teach them all the detail they will need for each situation, but it is a quick summary of each type of identification that they need to know how to use.

The examples show identification in the context of a conversation, because the intent is always to get students talking as quickly as possible. They practice speaking with limited examples at first, and add more content as time goes by.

Some common types of text that use identification are listed at the bottom of this document. These are incorporated to show the relevance of reading texts that will be used in class, as well as suggestions for types of writing that students can choose from in order to show that they know how to use this skill.

Students become familiar with this vocabulary very quickly through the use of the question and answer format. Once a level of familiarity has been reached, they can begin to progress up the hierarchy of skills mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. For example, they can be asked to group the items shown in categories: Quelles images représentent des animaux? (Which images represent animals?) They can compare images, express preferences, and describe them. Depending on the level of language students have acquired by this point, they can also use these images to tell a simple story.

By constantly coming back to the content and using it to practice a range of skills, students will be starting from what they know. Being comfortable with the content allows them to focus their attention on the skills, and acquiring new language structures to perform them.

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