November 6


The Birkenbihl Method at school – tips for teachers

By Laura Bacher

November 6, 2020

Monotonous frontal teaching, frustrating grammar rules, and endless vocabulary lists are often the standards for foreign language teaching today. Demotivated pupils and expensive tutoring are not surprising here. But there is another way. The Birkenbihl Method is very well applicable as a teaching technique. The fun factor is similar to the city-country-river game. The more often and more you decode, the faster and easier it is to understand and speak.

You can practice the Birkenbihl method in the classroom and/or give it as a homework exercise or “learning suggestion”. Pupils can prepare for lessons at home using the learning technique of brain-friendly and/or the Birkenbihl Method. They come to class equipped, and the teacher can make the lessons more interactive. Dialogues and speaking exercises are thus more easily possible because the pupil has heard the new words several times before. The pupil already knows the words and therefore understands the texts better. This means that progress in class is faster than usual. And the pupils come to the lessons more motivated.

However, the processing of lesson texts and new vocabulary can also take place in class. We will show you the best tips and what you should pay attention to as a teacher.

Decoding in groups

The basis for decoding is a foreign language text. You translate each word into your mother tongue – word for word. Thereby you learn:

  1. the meaning of each word
  2. the use of words in the context of a sentence
  3. the sentence structure of the foreign language
  4. grammar, such as conjugations, tenses, and prepositions
  5. differences and similarities to our mother tongue

By discovering together in small groups, pupils have even more fun decoding. Because motivation in learning results from incentives and rewards. With every foreign language word that pupils can recognize, understand, and translate, the reward system is activated. Even more so when decoding takes place in groups of 3 to 5 pupils. Furthermore, interacting with the other group members causes the language to build up very quickly. The more discussed and debated in the group, the better. Because the learning content is then transported promptly into long-term memory. It is the principle of play that leads us to spend hours on one activity.

Why not make a small competition out of it to create additional incentives? Which group cracked the decoding the fastest?

General group learning

At first alone, then in groups

Start by giving decoding exercises to students individually. Observe the tempos, difficulties, and approaches so that you can later form optimal groups. How to create a perfect learning group is explained in the following text. Now the pupils can compare and vote in groups: Is the translation correct? Is everyone in agreement? Are there any differences? Let them discuss. Communication helps them remember what they have learned even better. If conflicts arise, the group should try to resolve them themselves. The teacher should only intervene when all other possibilities to resolve the dispute have been exhausted. You can repeat this scheme over and over again. For example, give decoding homework and repeat the same text (or the back-decoding) in groups during the lessons. In this way, you achieve the benefits of group learning and the necessary repetitions simultaneously. 

Who is better, faster…

You can then use the positive effect of the competitive situation to practice what you have already learned. To show your knowledge individually or in groups, often in comparison with others, can lead to exciting teaching sequences. Decoding is well suited for repeating selected information and facts on a topic in a knowledge competition. This form of knowledge repetition is handy in attracting the attention of all pupils. Let teams decode a known text together. In the end, they should hand in one version per group should. Time is running out. Which group is the fastest? In this way, you encourage repetition and check the current level of knowledge. At the same time, promote teamwork, and thus the social skills of the pupils.

Create small groups

You can form groups according to four criteria:

  • performance or special skills
    • Homogeneous (= equal performance) groups, if you treat the topic for a more extended period, differentiate according to performance
    • Heterogeneous (= performance-differentiated) groups, if you integrate weaker pupils and if you don’t do work on the same topics
  • social relations (“friendship groups”)
  • interests (form interest groups, e.g., according to sub-themes)
  • random (“lot groups” or constant table groups)

To not only benefit professionally in the group but also in teamwork, you should ideally form small heterogeneous groups. A group of three to five members is best for this. The characteristics of each member should be as different as possible. The working groups are, therefore, deliberately put together according to specific criteria or features. For example, each working group should include at least one “outstanding student” and one relatively weak student.

Since this form of group formation takes up a lot of time in everyday teaching, the choice of groups by chance is also advisable. It is essential to mix the groups again and again. You can let a lot decide by case. This method is also the best when a group meets for the first time. Forming groups, according to interests, is also a good option in language teaching. For example, the pupils can select the texts for decoding according to the group members’ hobbies. 

Concerning group formation in children, we have to add that children learn particularly well from older children. In dealing with the older ones, they are also taught social skills. And this benefits both sides. Older children who play with younger ones unconsciously build “development bridges”. They become more creative and suddenly design simple games they are not interested in anymore, more imaginative. The younger ones are spurred on by the older ones and often have to physically, emotionally, and mentally go beyond their previous limits.

Tip for loosening up at the beginning of group work and promoting group loyalty: Choose a name for each group together.

Appointing a boss

You should appoint a coordinator to ensure a balanced input from the different members of the group. This coordinator is responsible for ensuring that all ideas and opinions are heard and that all members feel accepted. He is responsible for arrangements with the teacher and with the other groups. He or she regulates the discussion, makes sure that the work plan is adhered to, and that standard work is distributed equitably among all group members.

Improve speech quality through choral speaking

Supported speaking (co-speaking, choral speaking) of sentences and texts is an excellent way to train foreign language speaking. Either the teacher and pupils talk about the text together several times. Or the pupils say in unison with an audio recording (e.g., listening exercise from the textbook or song).

Use texts and audio recordings from the textbook. The reproduction of song texts and poems is also very suitable. Rhythm, melody, and rhyme make it easy to memorize these texts. You train these texts playfully through choral speaking and they reproduce in different ways. For example with or without visual support (pictures, objects), with varying volume, with the accompaniment of rhythm instruments, and with movement. Besides, you can use either the full text or a cloze.

Attention: Speech inhibitions should not form into a fear of speaking. Above all, you should allow shy children to make their first attempts at speaking together in class (e.g., choir speaking). You should not force them to speak alone in front of the course. Furthermore, you should not discourage them by too much correction at the beginning. By speaking in a choir, pupils usually correct their pronunciation automatically. Later on, when pupils have become routine in speaking English, you can pay more attention to linguistic correctness.

Laura Bacher

About the author

Laura has been a big fan of foreign languages since her childhood. She grew up bilingual - English and German - and through international vacations, she got a taste of many other languages.

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