Thursday, 29 September 2011

New 80 mph speed limit?

What a good idea! Let's give the NHS more business, increase CO2 emissions and raise more tax to cut the deficit.

But seriously, Chris Huhne should veto this one sharpish. It is completely bonkers. If anything, we should reduce the limit to get people to stick to 70.

The problem with essays

The essay is a venerable form of writing which goes back centuries to the Japanese and later the Europeans. One simple definition from Wikipedia reads: "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion". We all have a good idea of what an essay is. It is also one of the main ways we use to assess a student's understanding of a subject they are studying. In A-Level modern language specifications, both at AS and A2 level, for AQA at least, it is worth a significant chunk of the marks available on the listening, reading and writing papers. Is it the best way to assess writing skill?

When we changed exam boards a few years ago, moving from OCR to AQA, I had one slight concern, and that was that AQA have traditionally used the essay as a means of testing language competence. I now feel that concern was justified. This is why: at AS level we ask students to write a piece on a subject such as television, advertising, cannabis, new technologies. The exam board come up with a mark scheme which rewards not just the variety and accuracy of the language, but, more importantly, the structure and content of the essay.

So, an able linguist who does not have an abundance of ideas on the subject at hand and who cannot structure an essay very coherently, gets heavily, very heavily penalised. The student is not being assessed on the right things. What is worse, if a student's content is moderate, then the marks for range and accuracy are severely limited. This results is a wide range of marks which do not necessarily correlate with the language aptitude of the students.

At A2 level, the situation is the same, except we also have the somewhat bizarre situation, with AQA at least, that an essay is assessed for structure and relevance, but cannot be assessed for actual knowledge. In theory, a candidate can write plausible nonsense, full of personal opinions and justifications, and still score a high grade. Now, at A2 there is a genuine problem for the exam board, because they want teachers and students to study a wide range of cultural topics, do not wish to prescribe topics (because teachers have told them they want the freedom to choose topics, authors, historical periods and so on), but have to provide some kind of worthwhile assessment to motivate candidates. I am not sure this problem is easily solved, all the while we cannot use coursework and allow students to create their own titles (as we used to do). But at least the mark scheme could reward, above all else, quality of language. It does not. Once again, as at AS level, the language grade is limited by the mark for relevance and structure. Why? I have never heard an answer to this question.

In conclusion ("pour conclure", "en guise de conclusion" etc), I would allow for other forms of writing beyond the essay and I would change the mark scheme to reward the important things: knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Leave the essays to history, English literature and geography. In modern languages let's move away from the obsession with structure, opinions and ideas, and focus on the essentials.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Sunday, 25 September 2011


Just watched Claude Berri's Germinal with my A-level class and enjoyed it very much. One of two of my more squeamish students found certain scenes shocking, but I am sure their eyes were opened to a different world. Having seen the film some years ago, I was struck this time how powerfully it presented the cruelty of miners' lives, how heavy-handedly, yet effectively, it contrasted this life with the bourgeoisie who ran the mines and how honestly Berri was willing to depict the bestial behaviour of working people subject to this environment. He was only rendering faithfully Zola's novel, and I did read comments to the effect that Berri did not emphasise enough the political struggle of the miners, but I did not have that feeling.

The film is shocking in its naturalism, well acted, particularly by Depardieu, Miou Miou and Jean-Roger Milou who gives an outstandingly committed performance as the frightful Chaval. Judith Henry is frail and touching in her role as Catherine, though I was left unconvinced by Renaud as Etienne Lantier. Just one too many close-ups of his emotionless facial expression for my taste.

So I do not believe this should be seen condescendingly as a high budget "heritage movie", devoid of creativity or political commitment. It is a very powerful and enduring indictment of a system which debased both workers and the men who employed them. It is also a striking reminder of class differences which, though less stark these days, still persist.

Thursday, 22 September 2011


I've just come across the brilliant dictionary and translation/search engine site Linguee. This is a major addition to the tools available to teachers, students and translators. It comes from a team in Germany and could be serious competition for Wordreference. You can search individual words or whole phrases and idiomatic expressions and it will use its search engine to find the translations in real contexts, something Wordreference does not do. I would need to spend longer with it to see how useful it is in everyday use, but first impressions are very good.

They say:

Linguee is a unique translation tool combining an editorial dictionary and a search engine with which you can search through hundreds of millions of bilingual texts for words and expressions.

The Linguee search results are divided into two sections. On the left hand side you will see results from our reliable editorial dictionary. The results are displayed clearly and offer you a quick overview of the translation options. On the right hand side, you will find example sentences from other sources to provide you with an impression of how your search expression has been translated in context.

Compared to traditional online dictionaries, Linguee contains about 1,000 times more translated texts, which are displayed in full sentences. , Linguee will show translations for expressions such as "strong evidence", "strong relationship" or "strong opinion", and even for rare expressions or specific technical terms.

The young editors are at pains to say that it is not an internet translator. They add:

The vocabulary you see on the left hand side has been checked by our editors and is constantly enhanced manually.

The majority of the example sentences you see on the right hand side is from the bilingual web, particularly from professionally translated websites of companies, organizations, and universities. Other valuable sources include EU documents and patent specifications.
A specialised computer program, a web crawler, automatically searches the internet for multiple language webpages. These pages are detected automatically, and the translated sentences and words are extracted. The texts are then evaluated by a machine-learning algorithm which filters out the high quality translations for display. This system is capable of autonomously learning new quality criteria from user feedback to tell good translations from bad ones. It has found out, for instance, that a page is usually machine translated if it contains the word "Wordpress" while many words are literally translated. Through this training process, our algorithm is continuously learning to find thousands of such correlations and reliably extract the best translations autonomously. Our computers have already compared more than a trillion sentences. At the end of the day, only the top 0.01 per cent, i.e. 100 million of the translated sentences, are retained.

Un marteau de forgeron pour casser une noix

Hind Ahmas - photo: Magali Delporte pour the Guardian

Pour la première fois un juge a condamné à une amende deux femmes vivant dans la banlieue de Paris. Il s'agit de Hind Ahmas, 32 ans, et Najate Nait Ali, 36 ans, qui ont reçu des amendes de 120 et 80 euros respectivement. les deux femmes ont été interpellées le 5 mai près de la mairie de Meaux, dont le maire est Jean-François Copé, l'architecte en quelque sorte de la nouvelle loi entrée en vigueur au moi d'avril.
Les deux femmes avaient apporté pour Monsieur Copé un gâteau d'anniversaire aux amandes ("amendes" - vous avez compris). Elles voulaient exposer l'absurdité de la loi et étaient soutenues par l'association Touche pas à Ma Constitution. Leur avocat dit vouloir faire appel à la Cour Suprème et éventuellement à la Cour Européenne des Droits de l'Homme.

Apparemment les Néerlandais vont eux aussi passer une loi contre la burqa. Cela existe déjà en Belgique. J'ai déjà évoqué cette question dans mon petit blog et je reste convaincu que cette loi, qui concerne si peu de femmes, n'est ni nécessaire, ni juste. C'est un geste politique qui a déjà créé des victimes d'agressions et de propos racistes dans la rue.

Un ministre britannique a dit une fois qu'en Angleterre il n'est pas dans nos traditions de dire aux gens ce qu'il faut ou ne faut pas porter. Je partage son avis et j'espère qu'un jour la Cour Européenne tranchera en faveur de la liberté d'expression dans ce domaine.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Speaking the target language or playing the CD?

First, this talk by Patricia Kuhl about child language acquisition, the brain and picking up sounds, is both interesting and occasionally amusing. But about eight minutes in she describes experiments carried out with American babies in which they are exposed to Mandarin either by human talk with toys, a video with pictures of toys, or just audio with a picture of a toy. Only when the babies interacted with humans did they learn to discriminate certain phonemes.

Now, it has often occurred to me that in the modern language classroom, students seem to prefer, and seem to understand better, language spoken by me rather than the CD.  I had assumed this was because I slow down a touch and emphasize certain words. I think I also had a hunch that students naturally prefer to listen to another person rather than a recording. So I wonder whether the preference which babies unconsciously demonstrate in language acquisition persists in later life, despite the brain's inferior language acquisition ability.

In any case, this might be an argument for teachers talking more, rather than playing the CD. For this, very good fluency and pronunciation skills are needed. The CD still has to be used so that students hear a variety of models and are prepared for the exam situation.

Teachers talking to kids is a little out of fashion these days, although it has been demonstrated that lecturing is the most efficient and effective way of transferring knowledge. In our subject area talking to classes is one of the most important things we do, and we should not shy away from it.

By the way, Patricia Kuhl has a number of talks posted on youtube.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Underperforming teachers

Here is something from the TES:

"Dealing with the bottom 10 per cent of the worst-performing teachers would improve our schools immeasurably, argues the Sutton Trust. But is it that simple?
Last week, hundreds of thousands of men and women - some young, some old - took a deep breath (some perhaps even let out a quiet sigh) and stepped in front of class to begin another school year. For some, it will be their first time alone with a whiteboard and children; for others, that terrifying classroom debut will be just a distant memory. But whether these teachers have been doing their job for two minutes or 20 years, one in six is performing poorly.
At least that is the claim according to research on teacher quality published today by the Sutton Trust, which campaigns to improve social mobility through education.
The study suggests that some 64,000 teachers working in England’s schools are not performing as well as they should. If the figures are correct, you may be sitting next to one of them in the staffroom as you read this. Three or four low-performers you have encountered during your career may immediately spring to mind. One of them may even be you.
To put the Sutton Trust figure in context, consider the scale of the controversy caused by former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead when he claimed there were 15,000 underperforming teachers.
According to the Sutton Trust report, replacing or improving just the lowest 10 per cent of those working at the chalkface - roughly 40,000 - to bring them up to the UK average, would have a truly seismic impact on England’s schools and their pupils. The trust’s research claims that - all other factors remaining the same - tackling the bottom tenth of teachers would see the UK’s position in international league tables rocket in just 10 years from 21st and 22nd, in reading and maths respectively, to as high as third and fifth."

I am left wondering how one defines an under-performing teacher. The data collected by Ofsted on teaching quality is bound to be unreliable because they only see a selection of teachers teaching a selection of lessons in somewhat artificial circumstances. How else could they be counted accurately? Most, if not all, teachers perform well on some days and less well on others. Working teachers are aware that some teachers have a reputation for being particularly good or moreorless disastrous, though I have rarely come across the latter in the three schools I have taught out during my career.

So, whilst it is safe to assume that there are some incompetent or lazy teachers, just as there are incompetent or lazy layers, accountants, engineers and cabinet ministers, it is hard to put a number on them. I do agree that there should be measures that can be taken to help or remove such teachers. The development of performance management over the years has no doubt helped teachers in difficulty and the nature of modern teacher training may expose early incompetence more clearly than in the past.

My admittedly narrow experience is that teachers seem to have got a little better and seem to work a little harder than when I began teaching in 1980. They are more accountable, probably better trained (at least in practical teaching, if not theory) have better schemes of work, do more team-working, use their time a little more fruitfully and use a wider range of methods and resources.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Changing educational paradigms

This is an entertaining and thought-provoking animation based on a talk by Sir Ken Robinson. A colleague put me on to it. Not sure what you think, but a few thoughts occurred to me:
  • Some actual knowledge needs to be transmitted to children before they can think in usefully creative ways. In science you need the basics of Newtonian physics, chemical reactions and the like before you can move to higher levels.
  • Some fields of learning, such as my own (second language learning) are about acquiring skills and knowledge and the most efficient ways may not necessarily be the most creative - aspects such behaviourist repetiton can go a long way.
  • Economic necessities mean that what Sir Ken calls "batch" systems and the traditional classroom are difficult to avoid.
  • I am not sure I agree with him when he says children do not believe that getting a degree will lead them to a good job. Many children but into the system and know how to make it work for their benefit.
  • Ken makes an assumption that children find their education boring. This is not always true!
  • Grouping children by age usually makes sense, socially and educationally, doesn't it?
  • He is absolutely right that we are heavily conditioned by the division between academic and non-academic learning. Policies such as languages for all up to 16 and the Ebacc have been attempts to break down this division. All children, these initiatives assumed, can access so-called academic subjects.
  • To a large extent, new technologies notwithstanding, we are still doing what we did in the 1950s and we find it hard to escape traditional thinking in education.
  • Politicians and parents conspire in maintaining the status quo. We seem to value testing, uniforms and conformism.
  • Sir Ken, as others have done, seems to dislike the division of the curriculum into subjects. How, in practice, can this be avoided?
  • We are in the habit of bemoaning the failures of our education system. We could look down the other end of the telescope and claim that it is remarkably successful, given the challenges schools face.
  • Is it a coincidence that all developed countries have developed systems with great similarities? No, because despite their limitations, they actually work rather well.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Le pour et le contre de la télé

I've posted an essay on the pros and cons of TV for AS Level French (AQA). It's a slightly artificial piece, written as a model essay, but some teachers may find it useful along with the accompanying vocab list, exercises and gap fill task made using Taskmagic 3.

Still smarting over dodgy GCSE grades!

Just uploaded my lovely wife's web site. She has recently retired from her job at Leeds Metropolitan University and is now doing some writing, consulting and lecturing on internationalisation in higher education. Take a look!

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Mondial du rugby: les emblèmes des équipes

Article intéressant sur les symboles des équipes participant à la coupe du monde de rugby. Parmi ces emblèmes:

La fougère argentée des All Blacks:

"Les forêts humides originelles de Nouvelle-Zélande comptent plusieurs centaines de variétés de fougères. L’une, la Cyathea dealbata, a le dessous des feuilles argenté, ce qui en fait la plus belle et la plus recherchée des touristes. La fougère est aussi présente dans de nombreuses légendes maories et sa jeune pousse en spirale, dite «koru», représente l’éveil, l’énergie et la croissance."

Le coq du quinze tricolore:

"A l’origine, les premières équipes de France portaient deux anneaux bleu et rouge enlacés. En 1911, cinq ans après le premier match des Bleus, le capitaine Marcel Communeau proposa d’imposer le coq gaulois comme emblème. Ce symbole est associé à (la France) depuis l’invasion romaine, puisqu’en latin, gallus se réfère aux habitants de la Gaule tout comme au gallinacé chanteur."

La colombe (eh oui) des rugbymen tongiens:

"Ne vous fiez pas aux apparences, les valeureux rugbymen tongiens ne sont pas des colombes. C’est pourtant cet animal qui orne leur maillot, avec un rameau d’olivier dans le bec. Le tout enchâssé dans une croix rouge sur fond jaune. La croix rouge est le motif du drapeau national, le fond jaune et la colombe viennent du drapeau de la royauté, qui diffère. La colombe est un animal commun dans ce petit royaume du Pacifique."

Le jaguar des pumas (Argentins):

"Le cas des Pumas est une erreur historique avérée passée dans l’imagerie populaire. C’est en effet un jaguar qui orne le logo de la fédération argentine. Selon la mythologie établie, un journaliste sud-africain cherchant une métaphore animalière pour éviter les répétitions dans un article à rendre de toute urgence confondit les deux animaux lors d’une tournée des Argentins dans son pays en 1965."

La rose anglaise:

"La rose est un emblème royal remontant à la guerre que se livrèrent les maisons de Lancaster et d’York pour le trône d’Angleterre à la fin du XVe siècle. Un mariage servant à en finir avec les effusions de sang, la rose royale est à la fois rouge et blanche, mais surtout rouge. Elle fut adoptée comme armoirie par le collège de Rugby, où un imbécile eut un jour l’idée de prendre un ballon de foot à la main et de courir avec."

(Cette histoire de William Webb Ellis est en réalité un mythe populaire, quoique Wikipedia prétend que le rugby a son origine à Rugby School.)

Le chardon écossais:

"Selon la légende, des envahisseurs vikings tentant d’attaquer de nuit un château des Scots lors des invasions du VIe siècle se piquèrent dans des chardons. Criant leur surprise et leur douleur, ils réveillèrent les gardes et furent repoussés. La fleur est devenue le symbole de la résistance des hommes des Highlands à l’envahisseur, et fut donc choisie avec astuce pour leur premier match face à l’Angleterre en 1871."

Les plumes d'autruche du pays de Galles - eh oui, ce n'est pas trois poireaux.

"Les Diables rouges détestent leurs voisins anglais. Quand ils peuvent les empêcher de rafler un Grand Chelem, comme en 1999, ils ne s’en privent pas. Reste que sur leurs maillots, les Gallois font tout de même allégeance à la Couronne britannique.

Leur emblème? Les plumes d’autruche du Prince de Galles, préférées au poireau au XIXe siècle, pour signifier la loyauté à la monarchie. On trouve aussi le sigle de la fédération galloise, qui a remplacé l’expression «Ich dien» («Je sers», en allemand) au cours des années 1990. Pour l’anecdote, sachez que les plumes furent choisies comme emblème après la bataille de Crécy, au XIVe siècle."

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Gestion rigoureuse, mais pas de rigueur...

 ... ou comment la politique économique de la France ne ressemble pas à celle du Royaume Uni. Qui a raison? Je n'ai vraiment aucune idée, mais mon instinct me dit que les Anglais, se trouvant au début d'un cycle électoral, suivent la bonne voie.

Le Monde:

"Nicolas Sarkozy s'est livré à une grande explication de la crise mondiale et de ses conséquences, mercredi 7 septembre, lors du déjeuner qui réunissait les députés UMP à l'Elysée.
Le chef de l'Etat, qui s'est efforcé de faire de la pédagogie – avec une pointe d'autosatisfaction – a d'abord souligné que "l'heure n'était pas à la campagne présidentielle". "Il y a des urgences et je suis au travail", a assuré le chef de l'Etat cité par des participants à ce déjeuner.

Ensuite, le président de la République a clarifié sa position sur un des débats actuels de la majorité : "On ne parle pas de rigueur, a dit M. Sarkozy à ses troupes. La rigueur, c'est la baisse des prestations sociales et des salaires. Nous menons une politique de gestion rigoureuse, qui vise à baisser l'endettement de la France."
"Nous avons un objectif et une obligation : conserver le AAA [la note de la France pour les agences de notation]", a t-il insisté, selon des participants.
En réponse à ceux qui réclament plus de rigueur, M. Sarkozy a lancé : "Si on va plus loin dans cette approche, il y a des risques d'empêcher le retour de la croissance. Nous ne toucherons pas cette année à une réduction massive des dépenses publiques."

Le président de la République a poursuivi en faisant un développement au sujet de la régulation de l'économie mondiale : "A l'heure actuelle, le système patine. Les négociations à l'unanimité ne permettent pas d'être suffisamment réactifs." Le chef de l'Etat a alors pris en exemple la proposition de taxe sur les transactions financières.
"Si le G20 garde sa règle de négociation à l'unanimité, cela ne verra jamais le jour. Nous devons apprendre à fonctionner avec une règle majoritaire : je vais le proposer au G20 [qui aura lieu début septembre, à Cannes]", a plaidé M. Sarkozy, toujours selon des députés présents.
En conclusion de son exercice de pédagogie, M. Sarkozy a indiqué aux  députés UMP qu'il se laissait du temps avant de décider de convoquer – ou non – le congrès pour inscrire "la règle d'or" budgétaire dans la Constitution. Le chef de l'Etat a renvoyé sa décision sur une éventuelle convocation du Congrès à "fin septembre", selon les élus. "Laissons le premier ministre faire ses consultations : il y a le temps de la pédagogie, le temps du débat, puis le temps des décisions", a-t-il justifié."

La rentrée

As we get back into the routine of lesson prep, marking, data analysis, development plans, class lists etc etc, I prefer to think of this....

Sunday, 4 September 2011

A* grades

Glad to see that the issue of the lack of A* grades for A-Level modern languages has been picked up by the national press. Only 19% of the A*/A grades in French this year were A*. Only drama and media were tougher subjects to get an A* in. You'd be much better off doing maths (40%) or sciences (around 28%) if you need a top grade for the so-called top universities.

When you also take into account the fact that a small percentage of candidates will be native speakers, who tend to score very highly at A-level, it becomes even more difficult for able students to get an A*. Incidentally, the exam boards do not record the number of native speakers.

Ofqual's limp response is that subjects vary and cohorts vary. Curious, because the ability profile of A-level MFL students is high. They get a large number of A grades. Are they saying that because languages are hard there should be fewer A* grades? So why are there even fewer A* grades in drama and media?

Put simply, they are not doing their job properly. They can easily adjust the raw mark to UMS calculations to manufacture more A* grades and to bring language more into line with other subjects. There can never be a perfectly level playing field in this area, but the current situation is unacceptable.

When one also considers that the percentage of A* grades fell this year at GCSE too, even though the number of entries fell significantly (meaning, in all likelihood, that the quality of the cohort rose a little), I think teachers and students would be justified in getting a serious answer from Ofqual and the examination boards.

Please speak to us.

Here are the numbers: