Dancing Te Reo

Every week at my school we are given a new bit of Te Reo Maori to learn for the week and then to pass on to our students. Normally, I focus on regular language teaching – you know getting the kids to practice with one another. After doing TPDL a few years ago I’m not a big believer in written language work at the early stage of learning a language. But this week I decided to try something different. Inspired by the Dance Subject Association Conference (DSANZ – you can find out about them here) which I attended a week ago, I thought I’d try to integrate the arts – specifically dance, because that’s my jam, into our Te Reo Learning. Barbara Snook had taken us through a whole range of dance activities that looked at integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum – one of these was based around spelling – getting students to move as they spelt words. I wondered whether it would work for learning a language.
As it turns out, there are many people who have wondered the same thing, and they’ve gone even further towards answering the question. When we move our bodies glucose and oxygen circulate to our brains. As Jean Madigan puts it in her book ‘Thinking on Your Feet’, movement, dance and physical activity “change the learning state into one appropriate for retention and retrieval of memory, the effects lasting as much as 30 – 60 mins depending on the student.” She goes on to identify 3 key benefits of using what is known as Action Based Learning:
  • Learning is bettered anchored when more of the senses are involved – this increases the functioning of the frontal lobe.
  • Crossing the middle line of brain/body engages both hemispheres of the brain, which develops stronger coordination of movement and assists in the organisation of thoughts due to the activation of both hemispheres at the same time.
  • Repetitive gross motor movement assists the brain in sequencing patterns.
At this point it seemed clear that there was certainly nothing to be lost in integrating language and dance. Along with another class we booked the hall and got started.
After completing a few simple movement warms up based around the idea of focus and space, we got down to business. Students were each given a vocal card with a Te Reo phrase on it. Our current topic is the weather, so each sentence was fairly similar. beginning with ‘Kei te…’ (It is…) and the one or more words which describe the state of the weather. Each card had a picture indicating what the phrase meant (rather than an English translation – this assists students to think in the target language straight away instead of translating back to English which is often unnecessary and slows down language acquisition). After seeing a couple of demonstrations of different phrases from me, students were then sent off to work on the phrase. If students were stuck they were given a set couple of moves for ‘Kei te…’ and encouraged to improvise from there. The students were able to be completely free their movements – the could be static poses or travelling movements. The one requirement the students were given was that each word must have it’s own movement and students must say the words aloud with each action, thus practising pronunciation. Students were given time to develop and then practice their movement, this had a dual purpose of further integrating the language and developing the students’ muscle memory of their movements which would be vital for the next part.
Students were then asked to find a partner and teach their partner their phrase and learn their partner’s. All the time they were expected to be saying their phrase aloud. They then had to work out which order to put them together (dance skill = linking phrases). They then joined another pair (in groups of four now) and repeated the process – each student now exposed to 4 different phrases. This was where we left the lesson last week. When we come back to it, we will be developing it a more dance-based way, exploring the types of pathways we can create with our bodies or in space – straight and curved and making links to the qualities of the weather and these two contrasting ideas.
So did the movement assist the language acquisition? It certainly seems that way – students seem to have retained the new vocabulary and they are showing strong recall of the the language. I’m not sure whether it is significantly increased over other ways of teaching vocal in language but it was certainly more fun and a good physical challenge. I was impressed at students’ engagement in the movement tasks and also the amount of language I heard being used – this was significantly better than tasks we done in class. So the verdict, I think it definitely to continue with this, but maybe also to actually try and gather some evidence to support the apparent efficacy of the method.
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