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Dirk Lagerwaard: How to guide mediation in the secondary classroom

Dirk Lagerwaard

Dirk Lagerwaard is a tutor on our Teaching Young Learner courses. He is a PhD candidate at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and teaches English at a secondary school and the Escola Oficial d’Idiomes in Cornellà. He also works at the Blanquerna University, where he teaches the subject “The Teacher as an Agent of Change”. Apart from that, he is the Social Media Coordinator of the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group and started the vlog NovELTies.

 

 

Thirty screaming kids in front of me, no textbook to fall back on, blue marker in my right hand. “Just make sure they all end up speaking in English” is what the head of my Spanish elementary school had told me. I was asked to teach communicative language lessons to all secondary classes five years ago, and even though I had just finished my MA on ELT and the CELTA course, I had no idea where to begin. It turned out to be the beginning of my story; a process of growth, where the sociocultural theory from Lev Vygotsky and reflection on my own teaching practice helped me to enable my secondary students to express themselves little by little in their own unique way by making them reflect through mediation on how the English language works.

Mediation

In the beginning, I learned about the sociocultural theory and its key concept; mediation (Lantolf, 2000). What Vygotsky meant by “it is through others that we become ourselves” (1987), was that through interaction we develop our own knowledge, which we regulate once we try to consciously express ourselves in a foreign language. In the classroom, instead of explaining the form and meaning, the goal for teachers becomes to create them together with the students by building on their co-knowledge through mediation. The teacher tries to chain the students’ ideas into coherent lines of thinking to reach the goal he/she has in mind. As each student enters the mediation phase with their own idea about how the language works, each one creatively re-constructs their own knowledge about the language through interaction.

Dialogic Teaching

Question is, how can this mediation be carried out? Alexander (2005) came up with dialogic teaching, and introduced five key principles for the classroom; collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative, and purposeful. These principles will be explained with the following fragment from my class, where students shared their best excuse for when they had not done their homework. After they had spoken to their classmates, they had to write down what everybody had told them; this way transforming sentences from the past simple: “I lost the WIFI connection”, to the past perfect; “Núria said she had lost the WIFI connection”. After they had written everything down, they compared their answers, and then we created the form (and later the meaning) in open-class mediation:

S1:       Núria said she had lost the WIFI connection.

T:         Núria said… (Writes the sentence on the board)

S1:       She had lost the WIFI connection.

T:         She had lost the WIFI connection. S2, do you agree with this?

S2:       Núria said she had lost the… yes!

S3:       Why is it “had” and not “have”? (Spanish)

S4+S5:  Past! It’s in the past! (Spanish)

T:         Because it is in the past, how would you say it in Spanish (Spanish)

S4+S5:  Había.

T:         Había perdido. Is había a present or a past tense? (Spanish)

Class:   Past. (Spanish)

T:         Past, that’s why it is “had” (Spanish) well done everybody, really good.

S4:       What if we don’t write “she”? (Spanish)

T:         Good question from S4, what if we take “she” away? (Spanish)

S6:       No!

T:         Why not? (Spanish)

S6:       Because we always need something before the verb. (Spanish)

T:         Yes! (Teacher raises his hands out of joy.) And, S2, you had another good question. (English) You also had a good question (Spanish), what did you say?

S2:       “That!”

T:         Question from S2 (English), can we write “that” here (Spanish)?

S7+S8:  Yes. I wrote “that” (Spanish).

T:         Yes, but it is optional.

1.Collective

Even though each student carries out the exercise by themselves, before and after the “teacher and children address learning tasks together, whether as a group or as a class.” Through collaborative work they can justify their own linguistic decisions. This makes it easier for the teacher to involve every student in the open-class mediation:

T:         She had lost the WIFI. S2, do you agree with this?

S2:       Núria said she had lost the… yes!

2.Reciprocal

Once the open-class mediation begins, the “teacher and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints.” Notice how only during the interaction of knowledge-creation for lower levels are the doors opened to their mother tongue. This is because we are looking for ways to let all students fearlessly and consciously participate, without having to worry about how to ask something in English. Only through active participation, each individual can re-construct their knowledge; and this way, apply it consciously afterwards.

S3:       Why is it “had” and not “have”? (Spanish)

3.Supportive

We need to create an environment where “children articulate their ideas freely, without fear of embarrassment over ‘wrong’ answers; and help each other to reach common understandings.” To foster this, we need to praise contributions; as all comments are points for students to reflect on and learn from. Through a supportive attitude, we encourage more participation, which leads to more potential individual development through mediation.

T:         Good question from S4, what if we take “she” away? (Spanish)

S6:       No!

T:         Why not? (Spanish)

S6:       Because we always need something before the verb. (Spanish)

T:         Yes! (Teacher raises his hands out of joy.) And, S2, you had another good question. (English)

4.Cumulative

When ideas are shared, both “teacher and children build on their own and each other’s ideas and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry.” As teachers we need to be patient, and first invite the students to help each other out. To create deeper understandings, the teacher can guide the interaction through questions, so students can further build on their ideas.

S3:       Why is it “had” and not “have”? (Spanish)

S4+S5:  Past! It’s in the past! (Spanish)

T:         Because it is in the past, how would you say it in Spanish? (Spanish)

S4+S5:  Había.

T:         Había perdido. Is había a present or a past tense? (Spanish)

Class:   Past. (Spanish)

T:         Past, that’s why it is “had” (Spanish) well done everybody, really good.

5.Purposeful

Last but not least, we always enter the classroom with an objective. Therefore, teachers need to “plan and steer classroom talk with specific educational goals in view.” This makes it easier to not only anticipate emerging questions, but to also see whenever students have reached their cognitive limit. Here, the teacher can provide the missing necessary information:

T:         Question from S2 (English), can we write “that” here (Spanish)?

S7+S8:  Yes. I wrote “that” (Spanish).

T:         Yes, but it is optional.

All in all, give Vygotsky and dialogic teaching a try in your classroom to create deeper individual understandings through mediation. How can this co-created knowledge be put into practice in your secondary classrooms? 

If you would like to receive expert training from Dirk and advance your career by taking a teacher development course in Teaching Young Learners, apply here or get in touch for more information.

  • Alexander, R. (2005). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. Cambridge: Dialogos.
  • Lantolf, J.P. (Ed.). (2000). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1987) The genesis of higher mental functions. In R. Reiber (Ed.), The history of the development of higher mental functions (Vol. 4, pp. 97-120). New York: Plenum.

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