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Swedish

Världens bästa Astrid! - an intermediate self-study material

by Annika Lindskog

The Rationale

Unlike the other languages, I choose to create material for an intermediate learner or learner-group. There may not be much variation in the existing material for any learner level of Swedish, but the higher up you get, the less there is, and I was particularly keen to add something to the 2nd year (Intermediate) learning experience. The advantages are that you can make more use of the target language throughout the material and engage directly with authentic material (in this case the Astrid Lindgren website, her stories, quotes etc), but it also raises continuous questions of how to best set up the exercises, in which language to write the instructions, and of course just what level we can assume the learners have reached. In one way, the 'easier' material to write is perhaps that which starts from scratch and assumes no prior knowledge at all. The challenges of selection and progress are still relevant, but you do in these instances start with as coherent as possible a learner group. When writing for a collective that are more likely to have reached very different individual levels, and in very different ways, then the aspect of a cohesive and suitable learning process within the material becomes more of a challenge to achieve. For this material, I used my own 2nd year group/s as intended 'targets', and chose both the texts and the exercises with their level and their learning background in mind. The subject matter that the learning object engages with, the aspects of Swedish the exercises are intended to teach, and the character of the exercises are all components that I believe to be useful and interesting to that learner group.

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The Process

This does not mean that I found the selection process for either the original material or the learning tasks straightforward. I wanted the final learning object to have a relation to cultural knowledge and preferably be based on existing, so called authentic, material which could be accessed via the web. Using web-based source material was another aspect I was keen to incorporate, as it is something I feel I, and other teachers of Swedish, make very little use of, and which I wanted to explore and practise with further. But these parameters are wide ones, and still leaves the question of what cultural knowledge and what authentic material. I considered famous Swedes in general (e.g Nobel), topic-based areas like 'food' (this is still a great idea, and one I hope to follow up on soon - Sweden like UK is currently very keen on cooking programmes and Swedish television has a wonderful archive section with food programmes from 50 years back. To this one could add recipes, restaurant reviews etc., concentrating on general vocabulary rather than a food-specific one, but still learning more about what is close to a national obsession and therefore of value to any learner to be familiar with), Swedish writers, etc. After investigating several of these ideas, gathering potential material, and sketching possible exercises, one of them seemed to suggest itself as an ideal starting point: Astrid Lindgren. One of Sweden's most famous writers, and one which has been widely read and translated across the world, Lindgren wrote mainly for children, but her impact, work, and importance goes beyond that of her books. She championed an attitude to children that has for the last 40 years permeated Swedish society (and which is in parts distinctly different to that of other cultures), and is through her very persona someone who can inspire us all. She was funny, witty, sharp, warm and humble, and is interesting both from a Swedish and a generally human perspective. As with the food idea, my ultimate aim would be to produce more of these learning objects based around other interesting personalities. Whether or not this happens, I cannot think of anyone else more suitable for the first instalment - Astrid manages to be important both from a Swedish and a global perspective. Another good reason for starting with Astrid is that her foundation has set up the most amazing website, which is teeming with resources of many kinds. The learning material relies directly on this website, making tasks out of and in relation to texts found on it.

The other main consideration was what tasks to try and produce - or perhaps more accurately what the learning aim and outcome would be. To some extent my 'aim' is very simply to get them to 'learn more Swedish'. Its unspecified nature derives from the wish to make the learning tasks varied - the tool does not concentrate on any one kind of vocabulary, grammar, or skill, but tries to achieve a micro-course in itself by combining different types of exercises (reading, own production, practise of vocabulary and grammar) and aspects of the target language (words, expressions, grammar). This is a reflection of partly a conscious pedagogy, and partly a very simple questionnaire I had my then 2nd year group to fill in. The questionnaire asked what the students themselves considered important/unimportant to work on in the course, and what type of work they thought to be most effective/fun/pointless. The response was too thin to warrant a full inclusion in this report, but from the few answers I did get the disparity between students was very clear. Within a group that was to some extent fairly homogenous in that they had almost all been through the same Basic Swedish course the year before, I had respondents that listed certain aspects of the course as most and least important respectively! I don't wish to draw any further conclusions from this very basic form of canvassing, but I do think it can high-light again how very varied a group of learners any material needs to consider, and that perhaps argues for us as teachers to take most of the responsibility for what any course, activity, or exercise should look like and contain. I could of course have chosen a specific area of language to concentrate the learning object on, but here the size and scope of this project suggested that this would be too limited. It may be a way to go another time though, as both learning outcome and material design could be worked on with a much greater focus.

Through discussion with Jakob and Ian I was however encouraged to think beyond my natural 'what will we do this lesson to learn what I think they should learn' to 'what can we produce this lesson'. I tend to approach any lesson (course, exercise etc) with a clear idea of what I wish the students to cover, practise or learn, and then work out what tasks can get us there. The alternative approach that we discussed was to start with a desired end product, and then use the lesson (course etc) to learn the skills necessary to produce this. For the material at hand this could for example be a pod-cast which presents Astrid Lindgren to an audience who is not familiar with her. This is a beautiful idea, and one which would both bring focus to the student work and provide a chance to disseminate their work (and Astrid's fame!) further. As my material stands this has not been included (yet), which is perhaps a significant lack. But my primary aim remains the practising of Swedish, and I think the learning object we have created goes some way - if not all the way - towards making it at least partially enjoyable in itself. Once I get to try the material out on this years' 2nd year group though, I may well add a 'final task' beyond what is currently incorporated as a trial.


The Material

The material then on a basic level has two informative aims: to teach and practise certain aspects of Swedish suitable for the intermediate learner, relating to both vocabulary and grammar, and to introduce Astrid Lindgren. The opening of the material is very brief introduction of Astrid, and a picture of her (taken from the website), clearly at an age well beyond 60, half-way up a tree. It is intending to capture the imagination of the learner, making them wonder what this might be all about. The first exercise capitalises on this, and encourages the learner to first of all be imaginative and creative, without at this point bringing in any substantial background or limitations. Perhaps a tall order, but then it is almost impossible to get it 'wrong'. Hidden in this task is the introduction of some key words, like 'tree' and 'climb' (well, not so 'hidden' perhaps, they form part of the instruction). The learner might know them, might need to be reminded of them, or has actually never come across them before. This first task ensures that before moving on, whatever the starting point, the learner now has some tools with which to tackle the next part.

There is no specific feedback given for this first task, apart from 'show others' or 'show teacher'. This will work for us, as we will use the material in a class situation, but for the independent learner it will have to work as a warm-up only. The instructions given are intended to guide the own production, and as much as possible work as 'pre-feedback'. Once the students have thus started to engage with the subject matter and the picture, they are given the quote the web-site has paired with this particular photo. It is, as with so much Astrid came out with, subtly humorous, ironic, and very, very true. The rest of the learning object is based around this quote, picking out phrases, words, and grammar that we engage with and practise further. Where I have been able to, I try to use material and examples from the website for the further exercises as well, and on occasion try to use 'Astrid-like' language in the instructions. There are also several places where the student is directed to the website to check something or see examples in context. The last exercises of this part (there is really scope for making several more instalments of this, but in the interest of making the material easier to work with, we decided to finish the first part at this stage), is to look at all the other quotes of Astrid the website lists (all gathered into one easy page), choose a favourite one, and really learn it.

In order to achieve the ultimate aim of a pod-cast (or similar) on Astrid created by the student, I think there would need to be another learning object in addition to this one. I do have ideas for this - using the history section on the website, incorporating film clips and audio files (e.g Astrid reading her own stories), reading some, or part of, the stories. But it takes me an immense time to create any little part of this interactive material, and this is as far as I got within the project time. The rest will have to be for the future. 


Evaluation

I found this project very useful, very interesting, and very hard. Having never worked with anything similar, I struggled with every single aspect and step of the technical side. The first part of the project also went round in circles a little - I needed to decide on what I was going to do before I could usefully create any objects at all, but I didn't know enough of what I could do in order to select the most suitable material. With a lot of help from Jakob, Ian, and Sibylle at various stages things eventually started to take shape, but as mentioned earlier there was continuous evaluation and re-evaluation as we worked. I am good at drawing up plans and overviews, and to some extent need them before I feel prepared to start on the details, but here I found myself having to re-work literally every single planned exercise or task once we were trying to execute what I had planned within the LOC. I also found myself re-considering what I was trying to do, how and what I was expecting them to learn, what type of tasks I wanted to create etc. at almost as frequent intervals. In my class-room and book-based teaching I re-write the courses every year, and bring in new material and new exercises constantly. But with limited outside input and feedback on your own teaching style and strategies, you do to some extent still repeat yourself. Of course we have to do this, we simply don't have time to reinvent the wheel for every lesson. But I still found it very interesting and very inspiring to sit down with Jakob and Ian and discuss - with the starting point in our developing new materials - why we do what we do, what other ways might work, what other way of thinking about the learning process we are involved with can change what happens at class-room level. It made the work with the learning object itself no faster of course, instead adding to the time the process took, but for me I think this was one of the most valuable outcomes of the project. Even if I have ultimately managed to implement very little of our discussions, and spent most of the project time trying to get my head around the LOC as a tool, the value of this process stretches much further. It has opened up many doors in the form of technical awareness and increased courage (although I still have to have Sibylle by my side to create anything at all, I am confident that with enough practice I will eventually be able to drive my own LOC...), and it has given me the chance to pit my own practises and beliefs against others, giving me both many new ideas and a real appetite for discussing and thinking more about teaching and learning with colleagues - be it in forms of seminars like the CETL ones, work-shops, own readings, departmental teaching projects (like our assessment workshops this year which came directly on the back of this project), or just a heated argument with Jakob over a beer. To me then, this project has given me three very valuable experiences:

  • a chance to think about how we teach and our students learn, and new ideas and approaches to a variety of learning aspects and issues
  • a chance to try and work with an on-line learning tool and web-based material, something that for me, at least, requires both much time and much support from colleagues, and would otherwise have been very difficult to find time to start working with
  • a different, exciting, and relevant material for a second-year course-level that all too often have to make do with semi-adequate text-books!