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Implementing MARS/EARS in MFL lessons

Lauren O'Donnell from Swavesey Village College discusses the implementation of the MARS/EARS pedagogical cycle, as part of her CTSN/UCL IoE 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project.

Since the introduction of the new MFL GCSE in 2018, language teachers have been searching for the best way to teach the new content heavy curriculum in a meaningful, engaging way. Comparing the content of the new exams to when I did GCSE, I worry that the increased difficulty and the removal of ‘safety measures’ such as coursework make the GCSE inaccessible to already disadvantaged or disengaged students. We had already had success with the new GCSE, but as a department we wanted to build on that success in line with the school’s ethos of quality teaching and achievement for all. Initially I had planned to focus on changing the assessment formats for KS3 to make them less content heavy and more SEND friendly, but the closure of schools due to COVID led to the suspension of assessments. However, the move to online learning did allow the department to roll out a new MFL curriculum and pedagogical approach; the MARS/EARS pedagogical cycle, designed and popularised by Dr. Gianfranco Conti.

The MARS/EARS method comes under the umbrella of communicative language teaching, which at its heart posits that language education should serve to fulfil real world communication tasks, rather than focus on teaching single words outside of any meaningful context (Conti, 2018). The acronym stands for the following stages, each designed to build up students’ abilities to carry out key communicative functions, as listed by Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983):

  • Modelling (using lexico-grammatical chunks in relevant contexts)

  • Awareness-raising (introducing students to patterns or rules in the chunks)

  • Receptive processing (intensive listening and reading practice using the chunks)

  • Structured production (scaffolded writing and speaking practice)

  • Expansion (recycling old chunks alongside new to provide a great depth of understanding and wider context)

  • Autonomy (intensive practice with the scaffolding slowly removed, intense retrieval practice)

  • Routinisation (recycling the chunks over the years through interleaving material)

  • Spontaneity (unplanned responses to unseen stimuli with little to no scaffolding) (Conti, 2018).

The process of this kind of curriculum change has been colloquially dubbed ‘contifying’ in the MFL teaching community. We have used some of the ‘contified’ activities in an ad hoc way over the last 3 years and had hosted a CPD event with Dr Conti in 2018, but when we decided to adopt MARS/EARS fully we committed to further CPD with him in January. We have engaged with both published literature on MARS/EARS and communicative language teaching methods as well as blogs, and worked with other MFL departments online (you can follow us on Twitter @mfl_swavesey). In the initial stage, we divided the year groups and every member of the department is in charge of creating the sentence builders and accompanying lessons. Sentence builders are a key element of the MARS/EARS method and the main source of scaffolding. They are made of specific chunks of language that help convey key communicative functions in each module, such as describing oneself, describing the school day, narrating a past event, etc. We have used the AQA textbooks as a basis for our SoL. Lessons are then focused on intensive processing and retrieval practice of these chunks until students reach mastery and are able to use them without scaffolding. It has been quite difficult at times to create the sentence builders – the language chunks need to be transferable and serve multiple functions, and also anticipate what students might need in future GCSE assessments. We have focused heavily on interleaving content and ensuring input during the MARS section is highly comprehensible, which is key to meaningful student engagement (Fedrizzi blog, 2021). Despite a common tendency of language teachers to want to cram as much of the target language into our lessons as possible, being able to access the material is one of the biggest student motivators (Elliot blog, 2021). We have also begun to systematically introduce and recycle more sophisticated language at an early stage, such as If I could, I would + infinitive, on the basis that students do not need to understand the finer grammatical details to be able to communicate their opinions and we can 'level up' lower ability students easily (Fedrizzi blog, 2021).

It is difficult to gather evidence of the impact due to school closures, but student feedback on the changes has been mostly positive. Only 3% of students who responded to my survey said that they did not use their sentence builders to support their writing, and a similar number said they made they tried to memorise the chunks in the sentence builder. Just 5% felt they were not making progress, indicating high confidence levels. Staff feedback has also been positive; colleagues in the department said that the repeated activities and language chunks makes it easier to plan lessons, and that students find the ‘contified’ activities very engaging. Recycling activities also means less lesson time is spent explaining activities, leaving more room for practice (Brownlee, blog 2021). German in particular seems to lend itself well to sentence builders and teaching ‘chunks’, and the German team report that it allows students to see complex patterns in word order quicker than when teaching individual vocab items. Other positive feedback includes students in live lessons recognising the patterns in the sentence builder without us having to draw attention to them and the frequent requests for certain ‘contified’ activities, such as the incredibly popular ‘rock-climbing translations’.

Going forward, we will continue to deepen our understanding of MARS/EARS with more research and CPD and will gather student feedback more frequently. We have not yet been able to collect data on whether MARS/EARS is improving spontaneous production as we focused on stages 1 to 5 in lockdown, so in the future we will assess whether students are too reliant on the sentence builders. In the medium term my goal is to use low stakes retrieval practice with the sentence builders more systematically and interleave it with previous topics, in the style of Brownlee’s exit tickets (blog, 2021), to assess student self-efficacy. In the long term, I would like to continue to move away from the textbooks and develop new reading/listening assessments that are directly tied to MARS/EARS as other schools have done; however, this will take a considerable amount of time. While progress on the curriculum project may have been slower than anticipated, the CTSN/UCL IoE course was still invaluable in introducing to me the ideas behind successful curriculum change and how to implement a vision. I was concerned at first about stripping back the curriculum in order to implement MARS/EARS, but school closures almost give us permission to introduce radical changes, and I feel more confident doing so having undertaken this course.

About the author

Lauren O'Donnell has been teaching Spanish and French at Swavesey Village College for the last three years. She is passionate about making languages accessible and relatable for her students. Lauren participated in the CTSN/UCL Institute of Education 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project in 2019-2021.

You can follow Lauren on Twitter: @msodonnellMFL

You can follow the Swavesey Village College MFL department on Twitter: @MFL_Swavesey

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