The challenge of developing mediation tasks for our students

For our second post on mediation we spoke to Ángel Briones, a teacher at EOI Embajadores in Madrid.  Over the past year Ángel has been writing materials to both teach and assess his students around mediation.  He is currently working for Pearson to design extension mediation activities to accompany our new general adult course book, Roadmap.  Here’s what he had to tell us about some of the things that need to be taken into account when writing mediation tasks.

Question: Angel, you have been involved in writing teaching and assessment activities around mediation for your students.  What are the biggest challenges in your view?

Answer: This is a new area for everyone now, so confusion and doubts are to be expected, but from my point of view there was a perceived lack of information about what was needed to put a mediation task together, and particularly what was going to be assessed.  Obviously, this was a major concern to start with.

After reading all the theory on mediation I could find (studying up on what has been coming out of Greece and Germany, for example), I prepared a set of around 10 or 11 evaluation activities and in the end only one of them really fulfilled the new evaluation guidelines for Spain. So it was quite frustrating at the beginning. You think that the activity is appropriate for your students and then when you evaluate their production you realise there was something in the instructions for the task that wasn’t entirely clear to them and as a result it wasn’t prompting the kind of output you want to see.  So then you have to go back to the beginning and analyse what went wrong with the task.

Q: What do you think teachers are looking for in mediation materials?

A: I think teachers are looking for proper guidance on how to develop the mediation activity itself. So as I mentioned before, instructions need to be crystal clear for the students. Also, mediation materials need to reinforce basic sub-skills like how to take notes, how to summarise information and, perhaps most importantly, how to distinguish between fundamental information that needs to be relayed and  extra information which should be  omitted when it actually leads to confusion for the person on the receiving end.

Q: In the previous post Francisco and Manuel at the EOI in Santiago mentioned that the CEFR can be a very useful tool for designing activities.  How is this so?  Do you use it?

A: I believe the CEFR is a great place to start when creating a task, and I personally prefer to work with the basics, extracted from the framework itself. I am talking about particular words, like summarising, reformulating, paraphrasing, etc. that are commonly repeated in the descriptors.  All of us teachers need to get our heads around these concepts and what they mean for us and our students.

But the more I work on mediation tasks the more I realise how important the connection is between the descriptor, the input text you are using and the task itself.  These three factors together are like the “holy trinity” (or maybe a diabolical triangle!) for creating a mediation activity.

So, I read a text and I immediately think about its mediation possibilities and tasks I might use around it, but I need to understand which of the descriptors will lend themselves to helping me focus and write the task.  If any one of these three ingredients isn’t clear to me or doesn’t fit in with the others the task falls apart.  Obtaining a balanced combination between text, task and descriptor is the real key to creating a good mediation activity.  It looks pretty easy on paper, but it’s definitely not!

Q: Is there a “secret formula” for writing mediation activities?  Any tricks we should know about?

A: Beyond what I said before about balancing the three key factors, I think it’s also important to constantly remind yourself what the basic idea of mediation is. After a year of working on tons of mediation activities, I decided to always start with the very simple premise behind it all: the person receiving the information has a problem and you need to help them.  It might be the language, cultural barriers or some other barrier which makes it difficult for them to access a written or spoken text.  For me, creating this context is crucial for creating an effective mediation task.  In many of the activities that I have come across, the problem is not well explained or the needs of the other person you are passing the information on to are not clear.  Without this context being built into the task, the activity will never be a mediation activity as such.

Q: What are the differences in activities designed to assess and those designed to teach mediation in your opinion?

A: The main difference is that for activities focused on teaching mediation in the classroom you need to focus on sub-skills.  You can’t teach them to do mediation all at once, so you need to break it down, look at things like how to identify or select important information, take notes from a listening, how to paraphrase or develop basic summarising skills, things like that.  When you do assessment activities, you obviously try to get students to use more than one of these skills at a time, and the task will probably be more complete, as I said before, with a clear context – and obviously as realistic as possible.

Q: Can you share with us a favorite activity you have used or come up with to help your students learn mediation skills?

A: One day I came up with one on my commute to school. I saw a powerful visual ad in Spanish about how to use escalators.  The language of the ad was quite basic, but it seemed like something I could use with my B1 students for an interlingual activity. The first question I asked myself was: what kind of person would need me to explain this to them? I mean everyone knows how to use an escalator, right?  But a fun little story popped into my head at that moment: a Chinese kid, recently adopted by some friends whose only language other than Chinese was English and who had never seen an escalator before in his life.  I did that activity the very same day, just in a spoken mediation form, and my students really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it.

I’ve found that when you are in “mediation mode” and creating lots of new activities, you happen upon lots of interesting texts around you to use as input for a task.  So just switch to that mode and ask yourself all the time “who would need help understanding this and what for?”

You can find our fist post in this series, “A crash course on mediation,” here.

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