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Serge's design narrative: Collaborative learning of Dutch grammar for refugee immigrants

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Serge Stalpers
4 April 2016

This design narrative is part of an assignment of the Open University's H800 course.


I assist teaching a Dutch language and integration course for refugees. 


The course setting is a face-to-face classroom of three 3-hour sessions per week. There are 16 adult students, one certified teacher, and 1 to 2 volunteer assistants for each session. I assist a subgroup of 6 students, 4 from Syria and 2 from Eritrea. They are about 1 year into the course, some longer.

The main materials are a workbook and worksheets, and matching online exercises. The materials are designed so that 60% of time should be spent doing the online exercises (e.g. at home), but in practice most students do not have computer access at home and the website is incompatible with mobile devices.

After 2 years, students must pass the Dutch state exams, including an exam for spoken Dutch. After 5 attempts they are exempt, but they must pay the exam fees after the first attempt. Non-compliance means they must pay for the course and they can lose their residence permit. The passing rate for the Spoken Dutch exam is low: nationally (and in our group) it is less than 50%.

I find the students are highly motivated, not only to keep their permit and avoid paying the (expensive) course fee, but also because most believe they need to know the language to set up their new life & employment in the Netherlands.


What I tried to achieve, and my measures of succes:

(1) Spoken Dutch: I wanted to break the habit in the group of conversing in their mother language in class by explicitly asking them to collaborate in Dutch. So far they only speak Dutch with the teachers or as part of a exercises. When they want to help someone who doesn't understand something, they speak in Arabic or Tigrigna. We've allowed this until now, but I think they can learn active speaking better if they speak only Dutch in class. My measure for success: students keep discussing in Dutch for one activity.

(2) Word order: Ability to write sentences using the correct word order. In Dutch, the word order is usually subject-verb-object, but sometimes inverted: verb-object-subject. This is often difficult for non-native speakers. My measure for success: every student writes at least once sentence correctly, and the majority most of the time.


  • On a whiteboard, I wrote down the beginning of a sentence and asked them to complete it in turns. E.g. (in Dutch) "I take the bus because…". Some did it right, most made mistakes. As often happens, the students reverted to their mother languages to help each other.
  • I wrote down four sentences to be completed. I asked them to work together to complete them correctly, but they could only speak Dutch. I then left them 15 minutes to do it by themselves, and afterwards I pointed out the wrong answers and asked them to correct them as a group.
  • Finally I gave them a worksheet with 10 sentences to complete individually.


(1) Spoken Dutch: I observed from a distance. I noticed they only spoke Dutch. It was a lively debate in which they were actively searching for the words to explain their ideas. It was the first time in the past year I had seen them discuss so long in Dutch. I saw everyone participated at least once. One of the more longer-term students was speaking the most. At the end of class, one of the students came up to me and said he enjoyed speaking in Dutch in this way and hoped we could do it more often.

(2) Word order:  Three of the four sentences they had completed were wrong. When I pointed them out, they correctly answered two of them as a group, and one sentence I needed to give the answer to. Because the activity was done recently, I can not yet measure long-term learning.

Six students completed the worksheet: two students wrote most of the word orders correct, two students made basic mistakes on most questions, and two had about half correct.

Reflections and transferable insights

(1) Spoken Dutch: I think one session is not enough to know if the exercise changed students' attitudes and confidence to converse in Dutch, nor if their spoken Dutch had improved. I think this was a break in their habit. If they had not felt comfortable speaking Dutch they would have switched to Arabic/Tigrigna while I was not at the table. I find the results hopeful: it confirmed to me that the group is advanced enough that they can collaborate in Dutch. A transferable insight I gained was: adult learners can be enticed to speak only in Dutch once their language proficiency is sufficient.

(2) Word order: I had expected better results from the group task of completing the 4 sentences. The long-term student that dominated the discussion had poor results on the worksheet. I think the other students allowed her to dominate because of her longer experience in class, but in fact this limited collaboration because two more novice students had a better grasp of the grammar. This suggests to me that teacher facilitation is important. Next time I will keep the group discussion shorter and allow more time for facilitated exploring of answers.

I welcome suggestions for how to improve this design.

Extra content

Embedded Content


Robert Moore
3:18pm 8 April 2016

Hi Serge, based on our recent discussions and Mazur's work on Peer Instruction for Active Learning, what you could have done is to allow them to first complete the four sentences in their own language. By asking them to only speak Dutch you may have been introducing two elements, the sentence structure and discussing it in Dutch. Whilst that could have synergistic elements, based on Mazur's work, letting them discuss it in thelr own language allows them to support one another in a way they could not do if they had to speak Dutch.

This is not a comment I would have made before our OU Live session by the way.

You are the first person I am following on Cloudworks, keep up the good work.


Serge Stalpers
8:04am 11 April 2016

Hi Rob,thanks for your suggestion. I think you are right, I did introduce 2 elements (the sentence structure itself was not new to them but completing the sentences as a group was). There is a trade-off here between practicing active speaking and learning grammer. I will take on your suggestion to work in 2 phases, first in their own language, then in Dutch.

Cheers, Serge

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