Teaching & Learning


Community partners help language students build connections between theory and practice

Ana Pellicer-Sánchez describes how engaging external partners helped Second Language Acquisition students to make connections between the module content and real-world application.

Teaching in a classroom

20 August 2021

Ana Pellicer-Sánchez is module convenor of the optional Second Language Acquisition module on the MA in Applied Linguistics and MA in TESOL programmes. Philippa Vallely is Teacher Training Coordinator at the IoE Confucius Institute for Schools. Below, Ana describes how, in collaboration with Philippa, she partnered with schoolteachers drawn from the IOE's Upskilling in Mandarin Course to help her MA students reflect on connections between the module's theoretical content and its application in teaching children. 

Building connections in students' learning

We believe it is important to build connections between theory and practice and for students to see these connections. Many of the students who complete the Second Language Acquisition module have language teaching experience but past module evaluations often included comments about the lack of obvious connection between what was studied in the module and language teaching practices. We sought to address this by embedding experiential learning opportunities and making these connections more explicit to students.

Providing students with opportunities to participate in relevant volunteering activities is important, and we had done that in previous years. However, we felt that connecting those activities with specific modules and the course syllabus would be a more effective way for students to reflect on their own learning.  

Engaging an external partner

For the autumn term 2020-2021, we collaborated with primary and secondary school teachers to enable our students to reflect on the application of second language acquisition theories and approaches to real-world contexts. We co-developed a series of community engaged learning (CEL) activities with these partners to help students understand the relationship between theory, research, and classroom applications.

Our partners – a group of schoolteachers – were drawn from a cohort completing the Upskilling in Mandarin Course at the IoE Confucius Institute for Schools. This is a blended learning course for QTS primary and secondary teachers who would like to develop language and pedagogy skills to teach Mandarin Chinese up to KS3 & 4 schoolchildren.

The partnership idea developed from the informal support that MA students had given to the Mandarin Upskilling Course in previous years. We decided to formalise this support and connect it more closely to their studies and course. 

Designing Community Engaged Learning activities

We began thinking about how to implement this approach in the previous academic year. However, given the COVID-19 situation, plans had to be adapted to the online environment. This meant that what could have been achieved by having the teachers visiting the students in class, now had to be embedded in the online materials. This meant recording videos and designing the activities around them, as well as monitoring the forum discussions.

To achieve our aims, we designed three stages of activities to take place from week 3 to week 9 during the 2021-22 autumn term. Expand each one to find out more: 

1. Initial session to embed online materials (Week 3)

An initial activity (week 3) embedded in the online materials that are part of unit 3. The initial session was built around the idea of scenario-based learning and aimed to encourage students to reflect on the potential cross-linguistic differences between English and other foreign languages that they were familiar with. This activity involved:

  • An initial reflection on the connection between one of the topics we had discussed in the unit (cross-linguistic influences in second language learning) and the teaching of different languages and challenges that they might pose. Students had to post their opinion in a Forum in Moodle. In order to help them with their reflection we used teacher training films put together by the IoE Confucius Institute to prompt their discussion. This activity was a compulsory part of the module and all students were asked to complete it.
  • Introduction of volunteering opportunity. At the end of this initial activity, as a way to continue reflecting on the teaching of different languages and potential challenges they may pose, the students were introduced to the opportunity to collaborate with the IoE Confucius Institute and with primary and secondary school teachers, helping Philippa Vallely to facilitate online training workshops with the primary and secondary school teachers who are training to teach Chinese. This opportunity was optional, and 17 students decided to participate in these sessions.
2. Volunteering sessions with the teachers (optional) (week 4-8)

Volunteering sessions with the teachers (optional) (week 4-8). Students participated in 1-3 online sessions with the teachers. Their main role was to support Philippa Vallely in the delivery of these sessions by supporting the online discussions, and by presenting cultural and linguistic content to the teachers. This was an excellent opportunity for them to learn what were effective techniques in the presentation of content and what teachers considered key issues in the teaching of Chinese as a foreign language.

3. Teachers’ (online) visit (week 9)

The final activity, teachers’ (online) visit (week 9). The aim of this last activity was to reflect on how working with the teachers helped students see the connection between the topics studied in class and real classroom practices.

This last activity involved:

  • Since not all the students in the module participated in the volunteering sessions, two of the students who participated recorded a video/audio talking about their experience in these sessions with the teachers and how they felt they were connected to the things we had seen in the module so far. This was an opportunity for the students in the module to learn from their peers.
  • Then, students were presented with videos from three of the teachers who participated in the Upskilling programme talking to Philippa Vallely about their experiences working with the MA students, as well as about the factors that they thought were important when teaching/learning a second language. The students’ task was to listen to these videos and make notes about how the teachers’ contributions were connected to the topics discussed in the module. They were then asked to post their reflection in the appropriate Forum. They were encouraged to respond to each other posts too. I also contributed to the discussion and provided feedback on their responses.

An important consideration of the logistics of this project was coordinating students to participate in the volunteering sessions with the teachers, trying to match students’ availability with the plans for the sessions. 


We conducted two forms of evaluation to assess whether the project had achieved its aims:

  1. the students’ Forum posts in response to the last activity;
  2. Final evaluation questionnaire in Moodle.

Their posts were an excellent reflection of the connections students made between what the teachers said in the videos, the topics we discussed in the module and their own teaching and learning experiences. Overall, the response rate was very good. There were more than 60 posts for this last activity in response to the students’ and teachers’ videos. 

The feedback was only completed by 13 out of 81 students registered in the module, but the feedback was overall very positive.

  • Everyone agreed or strongly agreed that they had enjoyed the activities where they had to listen to the teachers’ experiences and reflections;
  • 12 out of the 13 students found teachers’ contributions helpful to better understand the applications of what they had studied in the module;
  • All agreed or strongly agreed that the CEL activities should be included in the module in the future.

Student referring to the teachers’ contributions in the last “classroom” activity said:

The videos shed light on the connections between SLA theories and real teaching experiences. Through watching the first video and taking a closer look at the teacher's narrative, I find the facilitative role of several theories in second language learning as well as teaching - MA student
The volunteering sessions create opportunities for MA students to experience and observe the language teaching class - MA student
An opportunity to get in touch with local teachers; a chance to practice speaking a little bit; a chance to introduce some of Chinese culture to foreigners who have interest in China (MA student) I can learn to make some connections between what I learned in class and how to apply them in practice - MA student

Our partners also recognised the value of the activities for our students and their own learning and practice:

Through collaboration with Dr Pellicer- Sánchez, we have been delighted to be able to include MA students at a very practical level on the teachers' course, enabling them to connect their academic studies with real-world teaching practices in the UK, and with the real experiences of teachers in our schools. For the QTS teachers on the course, their experience has been incredibly enhanced by the dedication of the MA students to supporting them, providing them not just with quality learning opportunities, but also developing their knowledge and understanding of ancient and contemporary Chinese culture. It has been my pleasure to help support MA students in their participation on this course as well, through demonstrating best practice, team-teaching and materials sharing - Philippa Vallely, Teacher trainer coordinator, IoE Confucius Institute).
I think for the pronunciation it’s really key, particularly the tones… sometimes when you say to [the language students], they don’t understand what you’re saying if you get the tone wrong so they’re quite good at being sticklers for it! - Jessica Hearn, Teacher, Garnet Bank Primary School)
It’s nice to have [the language students'] input, because they are all from different parts of China and the differences in the culture that they share with us… it just shows how different one country can be - Rachel Billington, teacher, Old Swinford Hospital School)

We hope to be able to deliver this face-to-face next academic year. 

Ana’s top 5 tips for embedding Community Engaged Learning activities in your teaching

  1. Plan in advance and have a plan B ready for online delivery
  2. Avoid having “extra” activities at the very end of the term. Students seem to be more focused on the essays and participation and engagement might decrease
  3. Show your presence and engagement in the online discussions
  4. Think about the best timing for the activity/project, considering the specific cohort of students, the commitments with the different modules and the assessment
  5. Ensure that, if you are collaborating with another department, that there is a synergy between both timelines for collaborative work


    This case study was a collaboration between Ana Pellicer-Sánchez, as convenor of the module Second Language Acquisition of the MA in Applied Linguistics and MA in TESOL in-service programmes, and Philippa Vallely, Teacher Training Coordinator at the IoE Confucius Institute for Schools. Participants were:

    • MA students enrolled in the Second Language Acquisition Module in the Autumn term (81 students). All students participated in the activities embedded in the module materials and 17 of them also participated in the volunteering sessions with the teachers.
    • Teachers who attended the Upskilling in Mandarin Course at the IoE Confucius Institute for Schools.