Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up



Yesterday I took a bit of a risk. Yesterday was the day to share my inquiry around Chinese language learning with my year 0 and 1 children and teachers at Newmarket School. We were asked to create a Task Based Language Activity, teach it, evaluate its effectiveness and present our learning to our colleagues in the EDProfst360 TPDL Course. I had extra pressure of having my principal invited to come and hear my learning and of course she accepted and was there. My learning about the task I created was how I failed and the learning I took away from this. So here is my presentation and story.

  • wǒ xìng Van Schaijik
  • wǒ jiào Sonya
  • wǒ shì xiǎo xué  lǎoshī
  • wǒ zài Newmarket xuéxiào jiào shū


My class is made up of forty four year 0 & 1 students. I take them for thirty minutes once each week. The class is made up of 22 year 0 students and 22 year 1. Of these ⅓ are Chinese speakers of varying proficiency from new learners of English to having some words. There are two teachers who work in class with me and we are all learning together. However because I am in the TPDL programme I am the teacher preparing and leading the lessons. My own language of Mandarin is minimal and I am in my second semester of learning Mandarin. I am also teaching the language therefore my proficiency is developing.

Where did the idea for my Task Based Language Activity  come from?  

Earlier this year for my first assignment, I researched Rod Ellis. I  developed the learning task using a PM reader. I was really clear in my approach and rationale behind the lesson. I spent ages on the artefact so that it all worked well. I called in a proficient L1 speaker to help with the resource. My understanding was the task should have worked.

Information gap.

So I carried out the lesson with the whole class. The task was mostly receptive and did not require much language demand because the children were already familiar with colours and where is (zài nǎ lǐ)

 叶 子 在 哪 里
hóng zi zài nǎ lǐ

They just needed the new word zi meaning leaf.

I deliberately chose a PM reader that most would have already read in English so there was little language demand.

I wanted the children to fill in the missing colours by looking at the picture of the leaf. I believed that they would easily accomplish this simple task and the lesson would be a great success. 

However I experienced a disastrous outcome. I felt that nothing was right.

Justification on my disaster

So I reflected on the outcome.

  • Why was the task all wrong?
  • Maybe the timing was wrong.
  • My expectations were too high.
  • I did not have enough language knowledge to carry out the teaching of the task.
  • Maybe the children were just playing up for me this particular day.


Then a niggling doubt surfaced. Maybe my designed task did not not fit a task based language activity.

According to Rod Ellis, a task has four main characteristics:

  1. A task involves a primary focus on (pragmatic) meaning.
  2. A task has some kind of ‘gap’.
  3. The participants choose the linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  4. A task has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome.

Yes there was meaning because the children could see the colours and hear the language.

But there was no gap because I was teaching whole class, all children could see the task. I misinterpreted Gap as a Gap in knowledge, rather than a gap in communication. 

I did not give the participants an opportunity to choose the linguistic resources in order to complete the task because I had colour coded the vocabulary I expected them to use.

The task did not have a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome. Instead I expected a focus on form.

Evaluating the task

I could not evaluate the task because I did not have enough evidence. I did not allow the students to use all the language they knew and or are learning. Instead I expected them to use just the ‘target language’ of the lesson. Therefore I had little evidence of output.

Time was against me as the term’s end was approaching fast. So instead I gave up on this activity and left the idea of task based language teaching for a few weeks. 

Instead I concentrated on more focussed input such as building vocabulary and building simple sentences by having the children continue to learn formulaic sentences.

I used more songs to give sentence frames and structure for language. I read more around the criteria of a task.

The impact of designing this task on my teaching

With failing comes reflection:

  • Reflecting on practice and where to next;
  • Discussion with colleagues how to improve the task and using my colleagues and their teaching skills; 
  • Refocus Task Based Language Teaching and ensuring that pretask, task and review are ongoing;
  • Refocus on learning formulaic expressions;
  • Refocus on my own language learning and registering for semester two of learning Chinese;
  • Focus on allowing the children to use all the language they knew and or are learning and opportunities to develop greater complexities of the target language such as using connectives or time order words.

Try again but adapting the task

  • Will the activity engage learners’ interest?
  • Is there a primary focus on meaning?
  • Is there a goal or an outcome?
  • Is success judged in terms of outcome?
  • Is completion a priority?
  • Does the activity relate to real world activities?

Focus on Input

So I spent most of term three focussing on input because the children still required plenty of exposure to LI through input before I can expect output. Therefore I focussed on smaller group teaching with the teachers focussing on language input. I was lucky enough to have an L1 parent join us as support and she was a fabulous L1 model and help. We also had a teacher in her final year of training who had the mindset and was willing to have a go. So with our forty four students we had 5 adults. I continued to use youtube videos as a model for L1 and created several visuals with images that would help with receptive input because most of our children are still developing basic reading skills. I focussed too on less whole class teaching except for the pre task stage.

The impact that ‘failure’ had on my students

Initially I was gutted and felt like giving up. I was tired and disheartened and I know that by my third TPDL observation I had more than had enough of my own learning.

But as the Chinese saying is

shībài bùshì dǎoxià dàn jùjué qǐchuáng
Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up

So as a thinking teacher who is always reflecting I looked for opportunities to bring in the expertise of the teachers I work with. I completed another assignment around the key concepts relevant to intercultural communicative language learning. This gave me another pathway to think outside the square and try something even more amazing.

Our Chinese Language and Culture Week at Newmarket School

So I approached our management team and asked for the opportunity to develop a week long series of events that focussed on culture. I applied to the Asia New Zealand Foundation and won a grant to help with the weeks event. I planned for several cultural events such as the kinds of games that children played, a calligrapher who shared his skills and who I was able to get through the support of our deputy principal and her connections with Confucius, a guest speaker who wrote a book about the history of Chinese Market gardeners to New Zealand.  I thought seriously about opportunities for language output and was especially excited because my focus classes of year zero and one would be hosts for the upcoming school assembly. I ran a small speech competition with a focus on students who could use connectives and I also looked for students who could recite a poem because I knew that they would have to carry out research to do this. Classes were invited to compete a Chinese art artefact and in order to do this I knew that the teachers would have had to research into some Chinese history and to find out about the art before they would do this. I asked all classes in the school to learn a dance and to learn three songs in preparation for the assembly and they did. My own Chinese dance group were given another opportunity to present and this time I ensured that they had dance costumes so they looked stunning.
The highlights are published on our Newmarket School’s Facebook page. The highlights for me were:

  • Seeing the little children talk to a kindergarten in China via WeChat and singing Twinkle Twinkle little stars together;
  • Seeing the parents come in to help with in class activities;
  • Seeing the delight at the whole school partaking in mooncakes during Mooncake day;
  • All classes learning a little bit of culture and language;
  • Our fabulous guests;
  • Our senior students leading the games events each morning tea;
  • Of course my absolute pride at the fabulous team lead assembly from the 5 and 6 year olds.


You might fall down seven times and maybe on the eighth time you might have your balance. As I reflect on my language programme I must balance meaning focussed input with meaning focussed output. I must balance  Language Focussed Learning with Fluency Development. This delicate balance enables more student centred, meaningful communication, and provides extra-linguistic skill building. I must continue to provide real world activities and tasks that are familiar to the students such as our WeChat session and our fabulous week long celebration. Our recent week highlighted that our students and staff were engaged which may further motivate them in their ongoing language learning of our target language as part of the ALLiS project.

Celebrate the learning

Finally look for opportunities to celebrate the language learning. Use the tools to capture the output such as video or iRecord. I have a big week ahead of me as I publish our celebration for our school website. I have a group of students who I will record their poems and introductions for our learning resources. I have a book that needs publishing in both English and Mandarin. I have heaps of people to send thank you letters to that helped make our week amazing.

So my failure ended up being hugely successful for my children and my school. I am always looking for new ways of forced output for our children. I have managed to convince our junior school team to take big steps in term four. They have all signed up for WeChat as we explore new ways for making connections with our families. As a team we have signed up for K-2 Flat Connections project where they will work with schools around the world and look at new ways of learning for our children. The project is called ‘Building Bridges for Tomorrow‘.   Our teachers will be exposed to new tools and the chance to think in new ways because technology has a way of forging past the traditional junior school teacher modelling books and the traditional walls of sharing student learning.

Collective Teacher Efficacy

The power of connections is vital for collaboration. When a group of teachers come together to work together  magic happens. When they come together for their students, and learning is the focus, then we have collective teacher efficacy.

Teacher Efficacy

So what exactly does teacher efficacy mean? Hattie says it is the way you think about your role as a leader or a teacher that defines the way you work and the impact you will have.

So as a teacher how do we measure our impact?

Keep our eyes on the game

When working with our school I like to make visible our school’s ethnicity data. I have been tracking ours for seven years and am amazed at how much movement I have seen in the seven years since I have been at Newmarket. We have a fabulous makeup of an amazing group of students who are predominantly Asian. Recently I have seen another surge of new migrants, when I have finalised our application for ESOL funding. I have begun with this because the makeup of our school affects our data. At the same time I stress the importance of watching the data. The aim long term is not to get caught up in the six month gains or the short term achievements that we can sometimes become excited over. I have faith that our bilingual learners will exceed our expectations when they get to secondary school because I have faith in our teachers and in my school.

The importance of data to help drive learning

My first query is, ‘Do our children want to come to school?‘ So by focussing on attendance data I look at our children who have attendance gaps and determine why this happens. We have an amazing person who watches the trends carefully and catches up with families if there is a drop in attendance.

We can also measure academic data and decide on the impact we expect to see. We have a range of assessment tools that give us this information and we are getting better at analysing them to target where our teaching gaps are and the effect we are having. We have a robust student management system that is able to aggregate the data and our teachers are developing in their skills to access and analyse the information.

When measuring our impact I believe that understanding what a year’s progress looks like is more important than measuring where our learners sit against national standards.  I also believe that it takes six to seven years to measure the learning journey to see that progress. I state this because of my training in bilingual education and am influenced by the work of Thomas and Collier who have also conducted longitudinal studies on language learners progress and have researched that it takes six to eight years to see the impact of bilingual education. We are not a bilingual school but we do celebrate the languages that our children bring with them.

Every teacher needs to be tracking the children’s progress, but we really need to move faster as there is a sense of urgency for our bilingual children who are catching up. For them I expect to see greater than a years progress.We can track this by analysing reading graphs initially. When I look at reading data I love seeing something like this (Fig 1)and bearing in mind that orange to turquoise plateau when inferencing becomes even more important rather than at the text understanding. These graphs were borrowed from our student management system ‘EDGE’ and was part of what I shared with our Board of Trustees recently. Against National Standards this student is well below. Using the data I can share accelerated progress.

Fig 1


When I look at our writing data using asTTle as one tool, I check the scores because they tell me more about student’s progress than the curriculum levels. I align them to the reading and see where everything sits. I look for something like this (Fig 2). This is a three year reading graph and writing data. Remember many of our children are migrant and often come with literacy in their first language. The reading always shifts first and the writing can lag behind. Note the highlighted number, and I am seeing less of the inflated score that can happen at the end of the year. From my own learning I see a correlation between the scores and the colour wheel. This is not yet proven, but I am seeing a trend. For example a 1B writing score shifting into the 1000s usually happens from green level in reading. 

Fig 2

sample2 sample1a

I also scrutinise historic data and identify drops. I look for the classic year 3-4 drop when Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALPs) becomes much more important than Basic Interpersonal Communication (BICs) for assessing progress. (Cummins). I am excited to say that after several years of across school moderation, we are no longer seeing that drop at year 3 & 4 so I believe we have nailed that. One key question here is ‘How long have the children been sitting at or above before we know that this data is stable?’ Check out your own school data at the Education Counts site.  If your school data is stable then there should not be that year 7 drop that also happens when children go to intermediate. I can also see from our historic graph the last time when our year 2 data was still too high. The graph shows the last of the trending drop happening in year 3. (Refer 2013, Year 2.)


Oral Language

As teachers we do tend to focus on reading and writing because these can be measured. However  take into account Paul Nations research into academic vocabulary and unpack what is required to achieve at this level of learning and remember how long it takes to learn a language. This can be broken down further using Academic Word List (AWL) devices by Averil Coxhead.

Students need to be acquiring 2000 new words per year to make a years progress. When this is broken down further, that is approximately 40 new words per week that should be actively taught. Breaking it down further, this is 10 words per day because we take into account holidays.  I recommend seriously looking at Jane Van der Zeydens book Essential Oral Language Toolkit. I love Jane’s work because it is research based and from a recent classroom teacher’s perspective. Jane also understands the sense of urgency for our English Language Learners.

Goal Setting

Recently I had a discussion with a colleague about the importance of goal setting. But not from a teacher perspective as was her understanding but from the learner’s perspective. I asked why the children were not setting their own goals looking at their own data. I shared with her John Hattie’s effect size on goal setting and suggested using the ‘Three Bear’s’ analogy also used by John. ‘Not too hard, not too soft but just right.’ The following was taken from one of our previous student projects. SOLO Taxonomy framework helped me unpack my understanding of goal setting but that is another blog post. 

NPS3 bears

Sharing data

As a school we have worked hard to have a shared understanding of data. We have looked at all our data in teams and set goals. We have shared our impact with each other and recently in teams we shared our impact with our Board of Trustees. We are gaining an understanding about the sense of urgency and about looking for a minimum impact of a years progress for a years learning. We are developing in our understanding about what the learning progression looks like at each year level as we moderate across the school. 

Update The Learning progression framework has just become public. Do register to increase understanding for the work we do.

Where to next?

Well I have recently joined our Auckland Central Community of Schools as an in school teacher but with a focus on building the across school community. Those of you who follow my work will understand my excitement at this new development.  I can hardly believe my enthusiasm because I have the chance to see longitudinal data being shared across our 11 schools. I have the chance to work with over 70 educators as we come together to make a difference to 7,963 children and their families. I have a chance to see if what we begin at primary school feeds through to our intermediate and then our secondary school. I can check to see how we are doing against the Thomas and Collier chart. We are all on the same journey and that is giving our best to our children. I have a chance to see and be part of a collective teacher group and the chance to see teacher efficacy in action across several schools.