Mimes and Memory Hooks in MfL by @ReebekWylie

I have been getting more and more concerned about what seems to be a growing movement in favour of teaching MFL in a more traditional way, the way I was taught at school (Back to the days of language sandwiches; dry and curling up at the edges) and without so much as a sniff of TL in the classroom.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Rebecca Wylie and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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I haven’t blogged for a while for various reasons and I was spurred on to write this article, not by something which happened in my class last week, but by a mixture of other things happening around me.  Firstly, I have been getting more and more concerned about what seems to be a growing movement in favour of teaching MFL in a more traditional way, the way I was taught at school (Back to the days of language sandwiches; dry and curling up at the edges) and without so much as a sniff of TL in the classroom.  Secondly, since I wasn’t able to go myself, due to the fact that I live up in the wilds of Cumbria, I have been following the tweets from #ililc5 with interest and have been reading various brilliant about what took place.  Thirdly, just last night, I happened upon a twitter conversation about memory hooks, which I ‘gatecrashed’ and that is what gave me the final push to write this.

I try very hard to keep the teaching of my French and German classes in the TL, despite the fact that in my French classes, I am less confident as I only studied it up to A-Level myself.  On the whole, I do quite well; in German, I would say I probably do better than in French, but I definitely make it the rule, rather than the exception.  I rely a lot on gestures to get my point across and to make myself understood; in fact we all probably do this in everyday life in our own mother tongue.  We point, we signal, we pull faces and we mime; talking with our hands, we call it.  The same applies in my classroom, but on a larger scale.  When I ask pupils to take out their whiteboards, I find myself ‘drawing’ a whiteboard in the air, which makes it easier for them to understand, especially in French, as the word ‘ardoise’ is nowhere near a cognate, not like German!  When I ask who would like to do the register, I pretend to take the register in my palm.  It has become something I do without thinking, AND IT WORKS!

This is purely down to my training.  I trained at what was St. Martin’s College in Carlisle (now The University of Cumbria), by the brilliant Anna Bartrum and James Burch, who really inspired me and continue to inspire me.  They taught me how to make myself understood and how to make pupils work at meaning without giving it away to them.  The principles behind this have stayed with me for the 17 years I have been teaching; I might have gained a few years and matured as a teacher, but the basic bones of my teaching has stayed the same and the reason for this is that IT WORKS!

My classes as a whole love learning.  They enjoy the fun and games.  They like the challenge.  They accept the use of TL all the time as they accept that other subjects are taught in English.  I am certainly not perfect and I have moments, lessons and days when I haven’t managed it and afterwards I feel disappointed, unfulfilled and that I have let my classes down.  My classes don’t learn as well either.  However, I am human.

So, back to the Twitter conversation that I crashed and to the #ililc5 tweets.  There was talk about ‘hooks’ for vocab and there was a question about how you would come up with hooks for abstract things such as colours and numbers. The example I gave was the word for purple in French, ‘violet’, which I drill, whilst pretending to play the violin; so it becomes a mime of someone playing violin, whilst we sing ‘violet, violet, violet’ as we strike the strings of our imaginary violin.  A pupil made me smile recently, as the colours were needed to complete a coloured reading activity and we recapped them.  When it got to purple, the pupil got out his imaginary violin and sang quite proudly, ‘violet, violet, violet’, just as we had done when they first learnt it.  It is also a great way of reminding pupils of vocab that they are struggling with.  For example, when my pupils struggle to remember the phrase, ‘est-ce que je peux…’, I clasp my hands together like I am saying a prayer and hum the Can Can melody, as that it how I taught them this phrase (Est-ce que je peux…enlever ma vest/marquer les points? etc).

The mimes I use are either clues to the meaning of the word, or to how it sounds.  For example, when I teach the German word for black, ‘schwarz’, I make use of the funny pronunciation and allude to ‘she farts’ whilst wafting a smell away from my nose! (or rear end, depending on the class and my mood!).  They never have any problems with pronunciation after this, I can tell you!  Some more examples are the numbers in German:

eins – bouncing up and down as if I am on a pogo stick
zwei – I make my hand into a snake and make it slither in front of me
drei – I dry my hands
vier – I act terrified and throw my hands up in fright
fünf – I blow up a pretend balloon
sechs – tricky this one!  I defuse the possible hilarity, by making  a dentists drill with my finger and ‘drill’ my teeth, whilst saying it
sieben – I turn my arms into a seesaw and as I say the word I rock from side to side
acht – I pretend to spit!
neun – this is me watching a fast car speeding past me and I turn my head to follow it
zehn – I ‘open’ an imaginary can of fizzy drink (and drink it in the first instance, so they know what it is)
elf – I crouch down as small as an elf!
zwölf – I jump back up with hands as ears and make myself into a wolf

The colours in French:

rouge – I rub my cheeks
rose – I make a rose shape with my hands
blanc – I shrug my shoulders and make it into a comedy sound
noir – I say it in a mysterious way whilst waving my hands about through the air, as if it was all dark and I couldn’t see
jaune – I bark it like a dog and mime appropriately!
gris – I make my mouth wide and use my hands to mime a bit like whiskers (I am trying to get them not to pronounce the ‘s’ and am showing them the ee sound!  I don’t know where the whiskers came in!)
orange – obviously, I peel an imaginary orange
vert – I mime a tree

and so on!

The question in French, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’il y a dans ta maison?’  I break it into sounds:

kess – I mime blowing a kiss
keel – I mime a comedy ‘kill’ (a contradiction, I know!) with a pretend dagger
yah! – a karate chop
dahn – a bit like Homer Simpson’s ‘d’oh’.  I touch my fingers to my forehead.
ta – I make a ‘T’ with my hands
maison – I make a roof over my head.

To practise the sounds then, I pick them out at random.  I mime an individual sound and pupils have to say the correct one.  Then we put them all together.  It’s brilliant fun!

The same principle would apply to using pictures – choose pictures which remind you of the word, whether it be from the sound of it, or from it’s actual meaning.

It’s not gimmicky.  It’s a really good way of pupils getting these words and structures into their heads and keeping them there.  I know that IT WORKS because the receptionist at my dentist was taught by me about 10 years ago and still remembers the phrase ‘Ich packe meine Schultasche’ with the mime, despite the fact she didn’t take her German past GCSE.  In fact, I was told by her colleagues that she is always singing songs in German, while she works!  If that’s not testament to the power of learning languages in this way, then I don’t know what is!  Maybe songs should be the focus of my next blogpost???  I’ve got a few up my sleeve!

Rebecca Wylie is a Modern Foreign Languages teacher in the English Lakes. Lead Teacher for Talented, Able and Gifted (TAG) education.

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