Ever since my friend Darren Mead got me into SOLO taxonomy I have been cogitating and playing with different ways to use it in the learning of another language. That got me into thinking about what learning another language actually means. I know that it has nothing to do with national curriculum levels as they just vaguely describe some stuff that you can do (but obviously not that you would do in the real world!). I know it is definitely not GCSE controlled assessments which I believe they are going to make into a game show soon... ("So ladies and gentlemen you have to memorise 5 paragraphs and an exclamation mark in 6 hours otherwise you will fall into a pool of cold custard and exam markers! On your marks...") So I finally came to the conclusion that learning a language is about understanding and applying the rules that make up a language. Being a real linguist is about making connections which are then demonstrated in the language we produce and are able to understand. Of course there are loads of way to take in language and reproduce it (from flashcards to thinking skills) but it is not until we make concrete connections that we can really understand how language works and therefore become a linguist.
So how can SOLO help? Well, SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes [Biggs and Collis 1982])is a taxonomy which measures a learner's understanding of a concept by dividing understanding into five levels.
The first level of understanding is called pre-structural. This is when a learner has no idea about a concept. So next time you are observed by OFSTED and the kids don't learn anything tell the Inspector that it was not unsatisfactory, simply pre-structural...
The next level is known as unistructural. This means that a learner has grasped one element of a concept. When Darren described this to me, he said that it was like having one brick but not really knowing how to make that brick into a house. In language learning terms, this can mean undestanding one aspect of a grammatical concept like gender and adjectival agreement- i.e. "I know what a noun is" or "I know that a noun is either masculine or feminine in French."
The next level is the multistructural level. We now have a pile of bricks, but we have not yet seen how they fit together to build a house. "I can identify the gender of nouns from the word that comes before it. I have more knowledge but I have not yet linked it all together."
This level is known as relational. "Finally, I can see that by fitting these bricks together, I can start to build a house. I know that nouns have a gender, I can identify the gender, I know that adjectives change depending on gender and I can now understand how all of this fits together, I can see the links between the gender of a noun and the way an adjective behaves. I have my house."
The final level is extended abstract. This means that learners can predict, using their relational understanding, beyond the oricginal concept. They, for example, can guess that nouns and adjectives change when plural. They can start with the notion of gender as a unistructural part of a bigger understanding of the language they are learning. This is like seeing your house for the first time as part of a street or town.
So imagine applying this to the perfect tense. "I understand that tense is when we talk about different times. (unistructural). I know the verbs avoir and être. I know how to make a past participle. (multi structural) I know how to put together an auxiliary verb and a past participle. I understand that we need to apply my understanding of gender to verbs which take être. (relational) I wonder if I change the tense of the auxiliary verb that I could create the future, conditional or pluperfect...." (extended abstract - well it would be nice if they could get there!!!)
I am not entirely there with SOLO yet but I feel that I am at least multistructural so I will leave you with two parting gifts; firstly a link to a Gender & Solo document I have made with SOLO rubrics and ideas for activities and also a video from the brilliant www.hooked-on-thiniking.com with some gorgeous little Kiwi learners explaining their understanding of how the SOLO taxonomy has helped them!