Sunday, 30 October 2011


Just got back from our exchange and the kids seem to have a good time, with no problems to report. That will be the last exchange I do as I am joining my wife in retirement at the end of this academic year. I'm hoping that we can keep our long-standing exchange going with the Institution Saint Louis. It is odd knowing that you are doing something for the last time. That'll happen a lot this year.

One thing I have decided to do, to keep my hand in, is to develop the web site into a minor commercial concern. I hesitate to call it business, because my aim is not to make a lot of money out of it, but to develop the site further whilst maintaining the motivation to add new resources. The site has been a enjoyable hobby of mine and the resources I have posted over the last few years, with some help from colleagues, have all been used with our classes at Ripon Grammar School. I know they are widely used in other schools, both in the UK and abroad. Once I stop teaching I would like to keep making resources, but will only find it worthwhile to do so for a small fee.

With that in mind an able sixth-former,as part of an A-Level ICT project, is in the process of rebuilding the site to make it a subscription resource. I am planning for the new-look site to be ready by May 2012, complete with a significant number of new resources. I am also anxious to make sure that I do not infringe any copyrights so some of my existing resources will either disappear or be changed. As my living will not depend on the site, I shall charge a small sum for an annual subscription, whilst assuring users that there will be regular new resources. I actually enjoy designing worksheets and in retirement I shall have more time to keep up my hobby.

I hope that some of the site's regular users will find it worthwhile to pay a small amount for my work. I have no idea at all how many subscribers I will get, but I will certainly give value for money!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The problem with specs

In the days of Zeppelin and Floyd we didn't have specifications or syllabuses for modern languages. Like the British constitution, we relied on tradition. We also looked carefully at past papers and made sure our students were prepared for what they would encounter in the prose, unseen translation, comprehension and essays. The nearest we came to a syllabus was the sometimes unappealing list of prescribed literary texts from which we could select. We were effectively preparing students for a French degree at university.

We are probably in a better place now. We test listening skills, use more authentic texts and rely less on translation at A-Level. We also have a clearly explained specification which lists topics, structures, skills and which tells us what will be in the exams and how the mark schemes work. All this enables us to be far more explicit with students about how they will be assessed. We also know that most of our students will not continue with French in higher education and we want them to use their language as a practical tool.

But with modern specs come a number of issues. Whenever you tell teachers what will be taught and assessed, they nearly always do their best to follow instructions to the letter. They follow the spec faithfully, making sure they stick to the topics: media, cinema, new technology, sport etc. There is some sense in this too, because the topics have been chosen by exam boards to supposedly match with students' interests. Indeed students and teachers are consulted carefully when the spec is drawn up. The problem, however, is that in this desire to prepare students effectively, teachers may avoid doing other topics, going off the syllabus, taking risks. If writing is assessed by essay, teachers set lots of essays instead of summary, translation, question and answer. Teachers are encouraged to play safe by text books designed to fit the spec closely and which are sponsored by exam boards. (Have you noticed how dull and uncreative these books and their associated online tasks are?)

Furthermore, when mark schemes are spelled out in detail, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time preparing students to attain the highest grades. I inwardly groan when I display a mark scheme and explain carefully what hoops to have to jump through to make sure you get the highest mark. (Marks which, by the way, as I have commented on previously, often depend as much upon ideas and structure as on linguistic skill.)

I would not argue that we should turn to the 1970s way of doing things, but I do suggest that we should be less slavish to the specs, keeping in mind that the structures and vocabulary we teach are often transferable to all kinds of topics. We should be creative, not use resources because they happen to be in the text book, do other topics beyond the specs, see A-Level as general studies through the medium of French, whilst making sure we do what we must to ensure students are well prepared for their exam.

Monday, 24 October 2011


Voici un premier essai avec l'appli Blogger pour iphone/ipad. Voyons...

Hmmm... mal formaté mais je ne sais pas le modifier. Tant pis. Voilà notre groupe à l'amphithéâtre gallo-romain de Saintes et au Château de la Roche Courbon.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

How useful is homework?

I reacted somewhat abruptly on Twitter to a blog post which claimed that research showed no causal relationship between homework and academic achievement. I have always assumed that setting and marking regular homework was an important part of helping students make the most progress. I have occasionally heard colleagues claim homework is a waste of time and some research, notably a much-cited study by Cooper et al. of other research, found no correlation between achievement and homework for younger pupils. The Cooper et al. study did, however, find a good case for homework improving achievement at secondary school level.

Now, research in this kind of area is notoriously hard to conduct and results need to be looked at critically, but in this instance I would also make a case for common sense and experience. If I set two written tasks a week on top of the four lessons of mainly oral and aural work i do, then I expect the skill and knowledge levels of my students to increase. I am sure they do. Golfer Gary Player quipped that the more he practised, the luckier he got. We know what he meant. Practice makes perfect. So it seems to me that, provided the type of homework set is appropriately challenging, you would have to find some very convincing reasons not to set it.

Homework encourages autonomy, builds persistence, develops research skills, reinforces classroom learning points and gives students a chance to show off their skills. It also allows more time to be spent in the classroom engaging in communicative, social learning.

Arguments against? It creates conflict between students and teachers? Oh dear, how sad, never mind. It is too often mindless and set just for the sake of it? In that case, teachers should plan better and set it appropriately. Pupils should have their free time to themselves? Why? They get long holidays and should want to achieve their very best.

As long as homework is set appropriately we should continue to have faith in it.

Good summary by Harris Cooper.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Lingua Ludica

I have been given a gift of this excellent board game which can be played by between two and sixteen people. It would really suit A-Level students and could be used with the regular teacher or a foreign language assistant. There is a board around which you move your counter by the roll of a dice. You can land on one of eight spaces with the following French names: expression, jeu de rôle, vocabulaire, joker, définition, grammaire, culture. When you land on a category you pick up a card at one of three levels and talk.

Here's an example from the "définition" category:

Expliquez sans faire de gestes: "Révolution". Il est interdit de dire les mots guerre, France et peuple.

To win the game you have to collect a certain number of cards. I haven't looked into the precise rules of the game properly yet.

Anyway, looks like a clever, fun way of developing oral work with quite able A-Level students. I would use it with good A2 classes in small groups. Costs 36 euros online, or you could make your own simplified version with laminated cards if you really have nothing better to do!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Exchange time

Roma arena in Saintes
It's that time of year when we do our annual exchange with the Institution Saint Louis in Pont l'Abbé d'Arnoult. Have look at their new web site. We began exchanging in February 1989 so hundreds of students have taken part over the years. I guess it's one of the things I am most proud of in my career. We set off tomorrow for ten days with a smaller group than usual (16 students). We do a morning of lessons, an afternoon watching a movie (I've chosen Etre et Avoir), then a day exploring Saintes and doing a guided tour of the Château de la Roche Courbon which I have previously mentioned in this blog.

It's been a tiring half term, what with getting over some disappointment with GCSE writing marks, plus the usual drain of day to day teaching, preparing, marking, meetings and the umpteen other chores which raise the stress levels a bit. Fortunately, the classroom remains an enjoyable place to be and nearly all our students are keen to learn and, on the whole, not switched off by language learning. At a grammar school like ours, with compulsory French to GCSE, we are shielded from the general crisis in language teaching to which Anthony Seldon, Head of Wellington College, recently referred..

League tables and so-called value addes scores have led to all kinds of unintended consequences in education in our country. On the one hand, we want students to study subjects they enjoy and have aptitude for; on the other, we need to be clear in our curriculum about what we hold important in society. Modern languages have become, to a considerable extent, a pursuit for the middle classes in private schools, grammar schools and the upper sets of comprehensives. We can raise their status again by fair grading, good teaching, clear understanding of methodology and by schools having a determined policy on internationalism. The latter will be hard to achieve because alas, most leadership teams do not share the passion for languages and other cultures as MFL teachers. Universities focus a good deal on the international dimesnion, to some extent for pecuniary reasons, and schools should do the same.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Guardian ipad edition

I've been waiting for the Guardian's ipad edition for some time. It has been pretty rigorously pre-tested because they know it had to be good enough to entice people to spend £10 a month on it rather than the minimal sum the iphone/ipad version costs, or spending nothing at all on the standard web site.

If you have an ipad 1 you first need to download Apple's latest operating system iOS5. This took about three hours from the itunes store with a slowish broadband connection. Then it took a little while for the Guardian download and a surprisingly long time (at least 10 minutes) for the Saturday edition of the ipad Guardian to download. I hope it was only this long because it was the first download, but we shall see. Updates on the iphone version are almost instantaneous. The paper is accessed from the ipad's home screen via an icon called "newstand", within which you could place other news sources.

So, I have it in front of me. From the front page, rich in colour and pictures, you can navigate either by a sliding tool bar to all sections of the paper or from the window panes to some of the sections: national, international, financial, in pictures, editorials, money and family and comment.  You can also access older editions of the paper from the "issues" button. The front page also features a large banner headline and picture. Today it's the Liam Fox story.

Once you've tapped a window to access another section, tapping a story brings up the article in full, in quite large Guardian-style font. Alternatively you can flick to one side to get the next page of the paper, so navigation can be by tap or swipe. Photography is always very prominent, taking advantage of the ipad's 9 inch screen. I'm a little surprised, however, than you cannot enlarge text with the two finger outward swipe, but the text is quite large, so I guess this won't be an issue. You cannot swipe from a specific written piece, you have to return to the main section page for this.

Some users have bemoaned the lack of comments after articles. I find this both retro and refreshing - it's amazing how many right-wing crazies seem to read Guardian articles online.

A dip into the sport section reveals a total of 34 ipad pages. The main sport page includes an annoying link to Channel 4's TV schedules and an invitation to dowload the 4oD app, but the this is because the Guardian ipad edition is sponsored by Channel 4. In a bar alongside each article there are links to articles on the Guardian's standard website which I find slightly curious. It's almost like an invitation not to subscribe to the ipad edition, but this may be one way of lightening the ipad edition to make download quicker. Within the sports pages there are also links in the sidebar to other sports articles on the app. There is plenty of coverage, including racing, rugby, football and comprehensive results.

It all works smoothly, looks very good with all the high quality photography and it is a world away from the functional iphone app. On the other hand, the iphone app does more audio and video, whereas this app is very much a digital newspaper, with the feel of a classy tabloid. The "in pictures" section is attractive; Saturdays' edition has 13 interesting photos.

So, the £10 question is: after the trial 70-odd editions have been viewed, do you fork out the subscription? I shall wait and see. £10 is still very good value when compared with the cost of the print version. Tablet newspapers are the future, I have no doubt, and if we want the Guardian to survive we shall have to pay for it, so, rather akin to the way we help keep our milkman in employment, I might be tempted to part with the cost of three or four pints for a good cause. This app looks great, is easy to use and really suits the ipad. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on those download times.

Postscript: downloads for Monday and Tuesday were slow, taking about 10 minutes. That's a pain.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Do we need to teach writing any more?

I have never used google translate, but I have recently been informed that it is becoming more and more sophisticated. It seems likely that, at some point in the not too far distant future, we shall be able to instantly translate between languages to a reasonably acceptable level. So, this being the case, what will be the point of teaching students to write in a foreign language at all?

Well, if we assume that learning one language skill (speaking, listening, reading and writing) supports the others - a reasonable assumption - then one could argue that practising correct spelling and grammar is not just an aim in itself, rather it supports the general development of comprehension and fluency. Writing things down will always help embed vocabulary and structures, especially when language learning is not taking place in an immersion situation.

Perhaps we should question, however, the value we place on writing in formal examinations. At GCSE we currently award an excessive 30% of marks for writing, but only 20% for listening and reading respectively. This cannot be right, and is only the case because modern languages had to fit into a controlled assessment model shared by other school subjects. When controlled assessments disappear we shall have another chance to look at this issue and I hope we reward adequately the skills which most people consider the most important, namely listening and speaking. The old 25% for each skill was better than what we have now, but I would argue for a greater weighting for the oral/aural skills. How about 30% speaking, 30% listening, 20% reading, 20% writing? Although I would value reading skill above writing, I would argue for maintaining a respectable weighting for writing to make it worthwhile practising. The same principle should apply to A-level.

We shouldn't forget the important role we play in the development of general literacy and this is another reason why we should still value the development of correct writing. Finally, for teachers and students to maintain their sanity, some time is needed in lessons for students to write things down!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Lancement de la version française du Huffington Post

Reportage tiré de

"Lundi 10 octobre à Paris, Arianna Huffington, fondatrice du Huffington Post aux Etats-Unis et directrice de la rédaction de AOL-Huffington Post Media Group, a annoncé le lancement avant la fin de l’année de la version française du site. Il se fera en partenariat avec Le Monde et Les Nouvelles Editions Indépendantes, propriétaires des Inrocks.

C'était une nouvelle très attendue en France. Le Huffington Post, créé en 2005, et propriété d'AOL depuis cette année, est un site d'actualité très influent aux Etats-Unis, avec plus d'un million de commentaires postés sur le site chaque mois. Le site sera en français, avec une ligne éditoriale française et des journalistes français. Et il pourra bénéficier de contenus du  site américain.

Arianna Huffington espère que le site français, dans la mouvance des journaux américains, fera s’atténuer deux frontières selon elle très françaises: celle entre la gauche et la droite, et celle entre le journalisme papier et le journalisme web, auxquels les journalistes français s’accrocheraient encore."

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Alan Partridge tells all

 It's the autobiography for which we have been eagerly awaiting. Former BBC sports reporter, radio and TV chat show host, Radio Norwich disc jockey and now radio presenter for North Norfolk Digital, Alan Partridge has finally put it all in print. He has laid his soul bare. His book I, Partridge (We Need to talk about Alan) is now available from all good book sellers.

To give you just a small flavour of Partridge's story, here is how he starts to talk about his troubled childhood:

As I write these words I'm noisily chomping away on not one, but two Murray Mints. I've a powerful suck and soon they'll be whittled away to nothing. But for the time being at least they have each other. For the time being, they are brothers. Which is more than can be said for me, for I was an only child. I will now talk about being an only child.

The book follows his life chronologically, from beginning to end, and one wonders whether he is in the twilight of his career when he writes, in Chapter 34:

Everyone has a shelf-life - whether they're a finely tuned athlete, a surrogate mother, or a lady newsreader. Disc jockeys are no exception. The last thing you want to do is to plough on long past your sell-by date, trading on past glories (Simon Mayo) or pretending  you like classical music (Simon Bates). The dignified approach is to recognise when your magic is gone, and serenely slip away, having negotiated a handsome severance package and delivered a stinging broadside against youger DJs and station controllers (also Simon Bates to be fair).

 You'll have your own views on Partridge. Always controversial, willing to challenge the status quo (for example when he famously described Wings as the band the Beatles might have become) and loyal to his local fiefdom of Norfolk. I dare you to buy this book, but be prepared to laugh and cry (sometimes simultaneously).

Friday, 7 October 2011

Scandale au pays du cassoulet

Merci à Esther Mercier ( d'avoir partagé cette vidéo sur Twitter:

The F-word and a training session

1.  I'm talking about fun, of course. I just had a look at Philippe Watrelot's blog on education news in France and he refers to the claim that there is too little pleasure in French schooling, especially beyond the primary level. School is too boring. Work = boring.

Hold that thought.

2. I recently had a conversation with a former colleague who is a PE specialist working in higher education. He was having a lively debate with a colleague overseas about whether "having fun" could be a viable objective for a lesson. Should we have as a lesson aim "to have fun"? My friend thought you could, whilst his colleague felt it might be a desirable outcome of the lesson, but should not be an aim in itself.

3. We had a training session on "good to outstanding" yesterday. It was well-led and thought-provoking. We watched teachers on video and talked about what was good and what could be even better. Good bread-and-butter stuff. We should do it more often. The "fun" word was not used, but there was an idea put across that a feature of outstanding lessons is that students should be working with the teacher, with each other and that they should be happy in their learning. The really good teacher is often able to create this atmosphere in the classroom. Education is done WITH children, not TO them, was a phrase used.

These tenuously linked points make me think that, firstly, we try very hard in the UK to make lessons stimulating and relevant. We train our teachers rather well, have systems in place which encourage teachers to question their practice and to get better, and we often work hard on the details of running lessons where pupils want to learn and take pleasure in learning. Many teachers do try to create pleasurable activities, "fun" activities, if you will. Language teachers work especially hard at this, maybe because it is a challenge to make language learning palatable to many children.

So, if I can try and bring this together....

I'm not sure we should try too hard to make lessons fun. A really good (I am not going to use the Ofsted word) lesson should be stimulating, challenging, preferably enjoyable, led by a teacher who is firm, friendly and fair (FFF - I only learned this last night). There should a humane, supportive atmosphere, skilled interventions, pace, variety, structure where appropriate, maybe some humour, but the lesson need not be fun. The best lessons I have watched involve students helping each other, a good deal of communication between teacher and students, as well as between students. The teacher is checking knowledge, referring to objectives, building on prior skills and maintaining a safe and productive atmosphere. Lots of learning is taking place in a warm, cooperative environment.

I came out of our training session a fraction more certain about what a really good lesson is and taught a fraction better today. I wonder how much staff development there is in the French system. How often are teachers given the chance to watch others practise? How often do they have structured opportunities to consider best practice?

Do they need their own Ofsted to help raise the bar in the classroom?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Mr Gove and primary modern languages

You have to hand it to our education minister, he's full of ideas. His latest pre-conference interview reveals his plan for compulsory modern languages for all children from the age of five. He says there is a "slam-dunk" case for such an idea. Dude! He adds: "It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter". To achieve his aim he suggests we would have to lengthen the school day. No problem. As Mr Gove says:

"More and more of the young teachers coming into the profession do so because they are idealistic – they want to work as long as it takes to help children succeed. If teachers know the Department of Education are on their side to help them, then any staffroom voices saying 'don't go the extra mile' will be a diminishing force."

I'm not sure what planet Mr Gove is on, but it doesn't have staffrooms.

But let's be serious for a moment. I doubt if Mr Gove understands much about the nature of language learning, language acquisition and bilingualism. To get one thing straight, for example, there is no telling evidence that learning a language makes you "smarter" (whatever that may mean). Research in bilingualism has sought to prove a correlation between bilingualism and IQ and there isn't one. The early Peal and Lambert (1962) study in Montreal seemed to show that bilinguals performed significantly better on verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests, but many subsequent studies have been unable to confirm this and the consensus is now that there is little or no correlation between bilingualism and intelligence, even if bilingualism and language learning bring all sorts of other benefits.

Now, that point aside, is there any worth in compulsory MFL at primary level? According to the Wade, Marshall and O'Donnell report, by 2009 the success of the recent primary languages strategy was patchy, with nearly a fifth of schools unlikely to be on board by 2010. One key finding was: "Respondents’ views on the main challenges to current provision were: finding time to deliver languages within what they considered to be an overcrowded curriculum, lack of staff knowledge or expertise and budget restraints."

The primary languages headteachers' survey by CILT contains plenty of very positive observations about the value of the strategy, along with suggestions to government that more money is needed to recruit skilled practitioners and that a slimmed down curriculum is required to allow enough time for MFL. There are no doubt many success stories and a great deal of enthusiasm, along, no doubt, with some reluctance on the part of primary teachers.

In my local area of Ripon, North Yorkshire, there is a reasonably well established programme of French at nearly all the local primaries. Teaching is either carried out by peripatetic teachers or the regular teacher. There is also an excellent North Yorkshire French curriculum designed to help teachers. We survey all out Y7 pupils on arrival and it now appears that the vast majority have done some French, although usually with one session a week at most, and often less, over the previous two years. How has this affected the abilities and enthusiasm of our Y7 students?

I have to report that most have acquired some vocabulary knowledge, though not strongly embedded. Most do not pronounce very accurately and very few have any written skill. I detect no greater general skill or enthusiasm compared with the time when there was little French at primary school. At the same time, I detect, thankfully, little antipathy towards the subject. Essentially, we have to start from scratch and provide a little extension work for the small minority of pupils who have covered more significant ground. I somewhat regret the fact that what I offer is now no longer new and fresh. My colleagues would share my view.

What we have now will definitely not lead to any greater long term achievement at KS3 or at GCSE.

If it is decided that MFL teaching in some form should be compulsory from the start of primary, then it has to be based on sound theory and methodology. For the younger learner we require an element of immersion and natural acquisition. For this to work we need fluent speakers and sufficient time. Such speakers would necessarily have to be imported and paid. For serious progress to be made, regular sessions, at least twice weekly would be needed over the whole of KS1 and KS2. Along with immersion and natural acquisition, by Y5 and Y6 strong elements of rigorous, structured vocabulary and grammar learning would be needed (the sort of thing one finds at prep schools). Is this feasible? Is it desirable given all the other requirements of a child's primary education? Is it fundable? I would say no.

To complicate matters further, we have the issue of which language to teach? This requires agreement and coordination across local authorities and academy chains. How would parents feel about their child doing six years of French to then go to secondary school to begin Spanish? This is not a trivial issue.

Furthermore, we must acknowledge that language learning is hard, very hard. Less able youngsters would make little progress unless there was considerable immersion and motivation. This will not happen.

So, Mr Gove, when it comes to second language acquisition, it is one thing to say that younger children pick up languages more easily than older ones,  it is another to provide the conditions for this advantage to really tell.

Perhaps Mr Gove should read this: