Tuesday, 14 March 2017

CASE STUDY: Student-led Grammar Revision: Empowering Level 1 Spanish Beginner Students to Facilitate Their Own Learning

Three Spanish beginner students deliver a teaching session, standing at the front of a classroom. Various members of the audience have their hands up in response to a question.
This Enterprise Curriculum Development Grant-funded project brought together, for the first time, Level 1 Spanish beginner students and local schools. As part of the mid-semester revision exercise of the written language course, students created presentations about a key aspect of Spanish grammar in order to present and explain it to their classmates in the first instance, and subsequently to Year 12 (AS level) students in local schools, also revising for their exams.

This project enabled the module tutor, Nashy Bonelli, to develop a revision activity within the taught curriculum that allows students to be creative, innovative and to develop skills which they could apply throughout their studies and beyond.

Subject area

Hispanic Studies (School of Languages and Cultures)

The students and the curriculum

Around 20-35 students per year undertake the linked modules HSS140 and HSS141 (Spanish Beginners: Language and Culture I and II). Students are drawn from a range of programmes:

  • BA Modern Languages
  • BA Linguistics and Hispanic Studies
  • BA French and Hispanic Studies
  • BA German and Hispanic Studies
  • BA Hispanic Studies and Politics
  • BA History and Hispanic Studies
  • BA English and Hispanic Studies
  • BA Russian and Hispanic Studies

And less commonly:

  • BA Archaeology and Hispanic Studies
  • BA Hispanic Studies and Management
  • BA Hispanic Studies and Economics
  • BA Music and Hispanic Studies
  • BA Philosophy and Hispanic Studies

All students studying the above programmes experience a progressive and cumulative learning of the Spanish language and culture. Students who have not previously studied Spanish (known as Level 1B Beginners) undertake HSS140 and HSS141.

Level 1 Spanish beginner students have no previous experience of the Spanish Language. In the first year of studies they are expected to reach a good AS level in Spanish, which implies following an intensive grammar-based written language programme, in order to substantially narrow the gap between them and their post A-Level peers by the end of the second year. This requires the use of various teaching strategies to help students tackle complex concepts in an accessible way. In addition to written language and oral tuition, students also study history of Spain and Latin America and cover cultural aspects of the Hispanic world.

Students are introduced to the major structures of Spanish, build basic vocabulary, and develop elementary skills in the reception and production of both the written and spoken language. Students also experience an introduction to aspects of Hispanic culture, society, and history.

By contrast, post A-Level students (Level 1A) undertake modules HSS130 and HSS131 (Spanish Advanced: Language and Culture I and II). Post A-Level students are not the focus of this case study.

Teaching and Learning Aims

The second semester module (HSS141) aims to build on the knowledge acquired in module HSS140, to learn additional grammatical structures and lexis, and to consolidate the four key language skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) acquired in the first semester.

By the end of the semester students should be able to: 

  • Understand the main points of clear standard Spanish on familiar matters related to studies, leisure, family, etc.
  • Produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Describe experiences and events, dreams and hopes.
  • Give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
  • Communicate effectively with native speakers and interact confidently in real life situations on familiar subjects.
  • Produce accurately the main features of the Spanish pronunciation and intonation in a range of scenarios. 
  • Deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an Spanish speaking country.
  • Develop cultural awareness of the Hispanic world.
  • Use some key transferable skills: oral presentations, working with others and problem solving.

Upon completion of the Beginners' course, students will join the post A-Level students for the content modules, but will still have separate language classes. In the final year, after their year abroad, there is no distinction between beginner students and post A Level students. It is therefore important that students are able to apply their knowledge of Spanish very early in their studies.

How do students develop their capabilities?

Authentic Problem Solving: students must address the specific learning needs of Y12 students, within certain constraints, including: timing of presentations, stipulated topic, the requirement for interactivity. Students explore various approaches to specific grammar structures, and reflect upon their own learning approach.

Innovation and Creativity: the students are given freedom to design their presentations using educational tools of their choosing (including, but not limited to, videos, games, and quizzes). They are require to think of, and implement, effective and engaging ways of tackling specific Spanish grammar structures, using approaches that appeal to their young audiences. 

Risk-taking: for most students in the cohort, this is their first experience of presenting to an external audience. They are going substantially beyond their comfort zones at a relatively early stage in their degrees, and dealing with the uncertainties of how their audience will react and respond to their presentations. Because the presentations are not part of the formal assessment of the module, students are free to experiment with the approach they take to solving the problem.

Taking Action: design, development and delivery of the presentations is self-directed and student-led, necessitating a pro-active approach from the students in order to meet the needs of their intended audience within a three-week time constraint.

True Collaboration: through this project Level 1 students are not only revising the target language but, very importantly, have the opportunity to develop enterprise skills through a ‘real world’ project. The students go beyond simple group work by iterating their presentation designs in response to peer feedback in class. They engage dynamically with the community, and create value for an external audience, with materials from their presentations being made available to Y12 students for further reference as learning and revision tools.


The HSS141 module is assessed through a formal examination and oral assessment.

The presentations themselves are unassessed, but they are used as a revision activity in preparation for final examinations. This case study thus serves as a useful example of an enterprising intervention within the curriculum where the existing methods of assessment remain unchanged.

Supporting students

In addition to their subject learning, students receive input from a local teacher in one of the partner schools, and receive a taught session on learning styles and approaches to learning and teaching, developed in conjunction with USEA and providing them with some very basic grounding in learning and teaching theory.

The students are closely supported by Ms Bonelli throughout the design, development and delivery of their presentations. As part of their preparation for the schools visits, students first deliver their presentations to the class, and received feedback from Ms Bonelli and their peers.

USEA support

Support to Ms Bonelli was provided in the form of an Enterprise Curriculum Development (ECD) Grant to cover backfill of a block of Ms Bonelli’s teaching duties during the Autumn semester of 2015-16, enabling her to work on the development aspects of the project, such as liaison with external partners and designing support for the students.

USEA also provided one-to-one and written advice and guidance, and materials for the delivery of a teaching session on learning styles and approaches to teaching and learning. The latter was delivered during the project’s pilot phase by a member of the USEA team, and is now covered by Ms Bonelli.

Learning from the approach

Student experience

Positive comments from students included the following:

“Helps oneself and everybody to learn”
“It feels you are in charge of your learning”
“Great exercise to answer questions from classmates; you have to think!”
“Good to do something different”
“It makes it easier to learn and revise”
"It is a great way of evaluating exactly what you know and what you need to revise”.
“It was lighthearted and fun“.
"It gives you a lot of confidence for future grammar work and important presenting skills"
"It is helpful to work with someone else, you need to think critically".
“You can be creative”
"Having the responsibility of teaching something well ensured that I'd perfect my knowledge of it".
“It gives you a chance to apply what you have learnt and it gives you motivation and incentive to do revision".
"I would definitely recommend this activity for future Level 1 students as it brings you out of the bubble of university and academia".
"The opportunity to go to the school was so valuable and something that wouldn't necessarily be available to me. I really cherish this opportunity and it was rewarding to help other students".
There were, of course, a small number of negative feelings about the activity, including a comment that it put additional pressure on an “already full timetable”, and complaints about the level of participation from another group member.

Tutor experience

For Ms Bonelli, this project offered a stimulating and engaging experience, with satisfaction gained from a new “real world” element to the module, and seeing her students assuming additional responsibilities, building confidence, and developing capabilities that would be useful throughout their studies. It was rewarding to support students in what, for many, would be their first experience of doing something enterprising in their subject-specific learning. As Ms Bonelli noted,
"with this project all students in the course have the opportunity to be empowered and to be trusted."
We also asked Ms Bonelli to showcase her project as part of the USE Academy second birthday celebration event on 28 April 2016.

Challenges for Ms Bonelli included ways of addressing support needs for less confident students, and an increase in workload, resulting from liaison with schools and the provision of additional feedback to students.

Further developments

Further developments to the project include plans to take the presentations to schools in less privileged areas of the city, to act as a bridge to the possibility of studying languages at university, increasing the presentation time, and requiring students to increment the number of exercises and interactive activities during or after the presentations, to further address school students’ learning needs. In 2016-17, students will also be delivering presentations to school students studying Spanish at GCSE as well as AS Level.

Ms Bonelli is also working with the Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to set up a similar activity with Level 2 and students from other languages, as an extracurricular activity.


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