Advancing Learning: Classroom opportunities for mediation

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Advancing Learning: Classroom opportunities for mediation

Introduction

In a follow up to Thom Kiddle’s post ‘Teaching Mediation’, this article provides some practical tips on how to use existing activity types and resources as a springboard for developing mediation skills.

As discussed in Thom’s article, the concept of ‘mediation’ has recently been updated and expanded in the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference), bringing it into the spotlight as a key feature of successful communication. Mediation itself is nothing new, but it is now much better described in the CEFR with a range of detailed ‘can do’ statements for each of the CEFR levels. However, it is still very early days with the adoption of mediation as an explicit focus in language teaching, learning and assessment, and a big question for teachers is ‘how can I include mediation in my lessons when there are so few existing resources and activities specifically designed for this?’

The good news is we don’t need to start creating lots of new resources to get started! Once we become familiar with mediation activities as learning aims, it’s clear that many existing tasks in the communicative language classroom involve an aspect of mediation that can easily be enhanced. Plus there are a whole range of opportunities to focus on this area more explicitly and creatively in extension activities, working with what we have.

The central idea of mediation is how we handle the communication of meanings and ideas, taking into account the communicative needs of our listeners, readers and collaborators. This inherently inter-personal focus means that the most important resource to draw upon is the learners themselves. Opportunities arise in the different ways learners can interact with the course content, be supportive of each other’s individual differences, and bring their own ideas and interests into the classroom.


Creating opportunities for mediation

Firstly let’s consider the three main ‘flavours’ of mediation: mediating a text, mediating concepts and mediating communication. Mediating a text can include any activity in which the learner takes something they have understood (be it written, spoken or visual) and adapts the content / message in some way to help others understand it. Mediating concepts relates to collaborative activities in which the interaction leads to new ideas and conclusions. Mediating communication includes activities which aid better understanding between people, for example in inter-cultural encounters and discussions.
All of these are aided by mediation strategies, which most language teachers know very well, as they include drawing on listeners’ previous knowledge, adapting language, breaking things down, simplifying or expanding to make things clearer.


Mediating a text

This is perhaps the richest area for exploiting available course material and ‘authentic’ sources, because there are so many ways learners can work with something they have seen, read or listened to. In its simplest form, especially at lower levels, this may be relaying the most important information understood in a reading or listening task, but it can also involve relaying the content of a conversation or discussion. Very often this has the purpose of closing an information gap, and even in the simplest information gap tasks learners can mediate by making decisions on what information to prioritise, what order to present it in, etc. This extends to ‘processing texts’ by paraphrasing, summarising, adapting, synthesising and/or extending the content of texts in some way, in order to achieve the desired effect according to the aims of the task.

To get learners relaying specific information think about:

  • instructions: e.g. setting up classroom routines in which learners relay task instructions to each other, as a way of checking understanding. This might be by alternating the responsibility in pairs or groups to repeat the teacher’s instructions to a partner / partners. At higher levels more extended task instructions can be relayed in parts (e.g. posted around the classroom) by different learners, who then collaborate.
  • looking ahead: if you work with a course book (and you intend to use it) learners can be given different pages to look at in a forthcoming unit, and then exchange information on what topics, skills and language points they are going to study together in the next week or month, with the book closed. At higher levels this might lead to discussion of learning needs and aims.
  • surveys: learners can gather information about each other and their interests in classroom mingles, etc. and relay findings to their partners or groups. There might be a survey of information found around the school or local area in signs and notices (e.g. different groups looking at safety or social notices), or on websites. At higher levels surveys can lead to written tasks and presentations to summarise findings and draw conclusions.
  • reporting phases: group discussion tasks can include a stage of re-grouping before moving on to another phase, with learners reporting the main findings or decisions of their previous group / pair to their new group.

To get learners processing texts think about:

  • giving advice: many course book texts cover topics in everyday life, or exemplify text features, from which learners can develop spoken or written advice e.g. what to do when visiting a certain place, how to do something, things to avoid (if the text describes problems), how to structure a news article, email, letter, etc.
  • differentiated summaries: for longer reading or listening texts at higher levels, there may be different aspects of the text topic that different learners can be asked to focus on, and then summarise to each other (e.g. information supporting different viewpoints).
  • genre transfer: e.g. re-telling a fictional story as a news report, taking the content of a formal company communication and turning it into a text message dialogue / vice versa, etc. This can often involve mode transfer, where for example the content of a detailed factual text is summarised by the learners in the spoken performance (and, if available technology allows, recording) of an entertaining presentation / video clip on the topic.
  • minuting: usually discussions leading to a written task are just seen as a brain-storming or warmer activity, but the discussion itself could be the subject of the written task, focusing the learners on note taking and reporting the authentic viewpoints and contributions of the group members in the follow up written activity.
  • extension: if learners have access to a library or internet resource where they can find out more about the topic in a factual course book text, they can build on it by expanding key points in an essay, finding out what has changed since the text was written, or evaluating  different public viewpoints about the topic with reference back to the text, etc.

In all of the above examples learners can be guided to think about their audience in the way they relay and process information to communicate effectively. This is a key consideration when focusing on linguistic and discourse features such as style, register and organisation.


Mediating concept

Discussion, problem solving and collaboration tasks are staples of the communicative language classroom, but there can be missed opportunities for learning and skills development if learners are only focused on task completion, and pay little attention to the communicative process of getting there. Can do statements / learning aims for mediating concepts raise awareness of the roles learners can play to move discussions forward, stimulate ideas and build on the contributions of classmates.

To get learners managing interaction / facilitating collaborative interaction, think about:

  • differentiated roles: group tasks can often be dominated by the more confident communicators, but assigning specific roles can give each learner unique opportunities to contribute, and focus learners on collaborating.  This might be as simple as giving each learner a discussion question to lead on, but can also include moderator and minute-taker roles, representing different stakeholders in an issue, etc.
  • quantifying group decisions: tasks that involve decision making can be given an added dimension of negotiation if learners need to allocate resources, such as how much of their personal (fantasy) budget to contribute to different aspects of a group project / school trip, etc.

To get learners collaborating to construct meaning, think about:

  • proposals: course books often deal with social issues or technological innovations, which can be a springboard for learners to make their own proposals about the topic – e.g. solutions for waste reduction or energy saving in the school, ways to exploit new technologies for language learning, ideas for a new school cafeteria as a successful business, etc. This can orient group work towards building ideas together.
  • success criteria: if learners are prepared for the task with a success criteria for how well they collaborate (which may be derived from a can do descriptor for this area), they can work on the activity with a reflection phase at the end where they identify what classmates did well, feeding back on positive aspects of collaboration and interaction management.

Mediating communication

This area is perhaps closer to the traditional conception of mediation, as it focuses on developing understanding between people and ‘creating the space’ for successful interaction, for example in inter-cultural / cross-linguistic contexts or in situations of misunderstanding and/or disagreement. Nevertheless, this is not exclusively reserved for higher levels, as even at A2 learners can begin to help others understand simple messages in the target language with informal translation. The CEFR also recognises every learner’s unique pluricultural identity, as their repertoire of cultural knowledge and communicative styles, which is just as relevant in monolingual classroom settings.

To get learners facilitating pluricultural space think about:

  • community walls: this is a term taken from online collaboration where a group can post comments and questions on a topic, which can then be summarised and responded to. This can easily be done offline with poster size paper and learners moving around. If the topic of each community wall is an area of culture one or more learners have direct experience of, they can then summarise and respond to the community wall in a follow up group discussion that places value and interest on the topic.
  • plurilingual / pluricultural profiles: there are many ways learners can reflect on their plurilingual and pluricultural repertoires. This might be in a portfolio style activity using can do statements taken from the CEFR in these areas, but it can equally be a freer mind mapping exercise, with learners creating mini posters about their own experiences and knowledge of languages and cultures. These can then be a stimulus for learners to talk about their plurilingual and pluricultural profiles in the target language, e.g. in pair work, group work or mini presentations.

Conclusion

In this blog we have looked at just a few examples of how teachers can incorporate a focus on mediation activities into their courses, with minimal preparation / resource development. This may be through alternative uses and extensions of existing course activities, or by introducing new activities to the course that draw on the learners’ own interests and contributions. Of course, the selection of such activities (and their placement lesson staging) will be very much influenced by the language level and age group of the learners. We have only scratched the surface here concerning different target groups, but even at low levels and with young learners, teachers can set up simple classroom routines that get learners processing what they have understood and developing their roles in communication and collaboration. Most of all, the introduction of mediation activities can be seen as an extension and enhancement of what we already do in the communicative classroom, rather than a ‘new syllabus’ or ‘fifth skill’.

About the author

Tim Goodier was a teacher trainer and educational consultant. He was a member of the core authoring group for the 2018 update to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), and served as a member of the board of trustees for Eaquals. His professional experience included academic project management, test development, programme design and delivery, online platform design, teaching, training, examining and quality assurance.

As Head of Academic Development for the Eurocentres Foundation Tim had senior oversight of quality and innovation and worked on numerous large scale international curriculum projects, such as the launch of the 'my.Eurocentres' blended learning platform for English and French, and the design of transnational preparatory programmes for higher education. He won a British Council ELTons award for ELT masters dissertation with Kings College London, concerning the pedagogic exploitation of CEFR ‘can do’ descriptors.

If you want to make a contribution in honour of Tim to a worthy cause which was so relevant to Tim and his family, please visit https://timothygoodier.muchloved.com/

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