4 ways to make every minute of every lesson count in the time of Covid-19

Drop Everything and Read blog

This return to school has been like no other. As usual, we have had to face confirmation of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve after a long summer break; but this time, with the addition of those months in lockdown. And, although happy to be back in school, we have found ourselves having to work extra hard not only to close those gaps, but also to navigate the changes and limitations imposed by Covid. We have to move from classroom to classroom, not able to have our starter routines ready like we used to. It is imperative that we minimise our circulation among pupils, often changing how we encourage and guide them. Also, we have to be mindful of the speaking activities we organise to minimise the health risks.

These and many other new challenges are forcing us out of our tried and tested ways, requiring that we embrace the opportunity to do things differently. We know we must make every minute of our lessons count, but how?

What follows are simple, low-prep ideas that have proved effective in classrooms around the country addressing some of these new challenges.

1. How can I check for understanding from the front of the classroom?

  • Make a point of showing pupils you’re watching them (be seen looking): maintain eye contact, use facial expressions, nod, smile. Use positive reinforcement and establish sharp routines such as an agreed action together with a Target Language word or expression for them to stop at once and look at you: a clap plus “mirad/gucke mal/regardez”, for example.
  • If available, use Individual White Boards as much as you can. To use these effectively, use a countdown in the Target Language “3-2-1… ¡ahora!” for all pupils to show their answers at the same time. You can use these for true or false, multiple choice question answers or to get pupils writing key words. If you haven’t got IWBs, you can get a voting system going with fingers up (1 finger for true, 2 for false; 1 for answer A, 2 for answer B, 3 for answer C, etc.)
  • Ask questions all the time. Have these ready: predict the likely mistakes and address them head on: “Why would I not write Le weekend dernier je mangé trop de glace? What is missing?”. Also, use cold calling and train your pupils to always be ready to add more to a previous answer (their own or someone else’s): “¿qué más? Was noch?”. After that, you can get them to add chunks in a chain (each person you choose needs to add another item in the sequence): “Yesterday-I went to the park-with my friends-we played for a long time-it was sunny…” do this in a fast-paced manner, adding your own chunks when you want to steer the output: “However, in the future…”

2. How can I start my lessons effectively when I come rushing from the other side of the school and I need to log on while my year 8s are all waiting (and often not patiently)?

Get your pupils into a recall activity routine that does not require login in (pupils can get on with this important work while you settle in, take the register, etc.). For example:

  • Write 5-10 infinitives on the board (key verbs) and get pupils to provide the 1st person singular under three columns: PAST TIME FRAME – PRESENT – FUTURE TIME FRAME
  • Say aloud (or write on the board) a time marker (yesterday, next weekend, usually, last month…). Then, ask pupils to write as many verbs in the correct time frame as they can in 10 seconds, before you move on to a different time marker. You can provide them with the infinitives if you want them to stick to certain verbs.
  • Listening and translating: say a chunk of language for pupils to write down the correct translation. It can be done English to Target Language; “I hope to visit Italy” or vice versa “Mi madre tiene el pelo corto”. It can be kept simple with single key words; “L’été”, “compré”, “yesterday”. Or include longer structures “nous avons décidé de rester dans un hôtel”, “we prefer to have dinner together”.

3. How can I differentiate in reading and listening, using the same text?

  • Expose pupils to a challenging reading comprehension. Provide multiple answers for pupils who need extra support. Organise your questions in ascending order of difficulty and ask your more able/motivated/confident pupils to start from the end.
  • Expose pupils to a challenging listening text, having worked on the language previously. Give those in more need of support a faulty transcript to correct while you require others to complete some more traditional comprehension questions.

4. How can I give pupils opportunities for effective independent writing if I cannot circulate to see what they are producing?

  • Set strict and clear boundaries in length and time: 5 minutes to write 25-30 words answering a question/bullet point. Exaggerate starting/finishing routines: insist they show you they are holding the pen up, then count down in Target Language “3-2-1… escribid”, insisting they put heads and pen down. To stop, insist on hands up or two claps or whatever works for you. This will help you identify who is not engaged with the task or is taking longer to start. Use a sound to indicate time is up and if possible, have a countdown clock on show during the activity.
  • After each chunk of writing insist that pupils get another colour pen and go over what they have written. Guide them through key misconceptions, point out to them the likely mistakes that might have occurred. Encourage them to tick if they have got something right: “je suis allé… have you added an extra -e if you are a girl? Have you remembered the accent? Give yourselves a tick. If not: add the é in the different colour”. Use your experience and knowledge to predict the likely mistakes. Get some pupils to read their best sentence out.

Mariu Hurriaga is United Learning’s MFL Subject Advisor with responsibility for raising standards in more than 50 Secondary MFL departments, in both Academies and Independent Schools. Previously, she taught Modern Languages (Spanish, German, French) and Latin at a variety of schools and was Head of Department for 15 years. She is also an examiner for GCSE and A-level.