Friday, 30 December 2011

What can we learn from the Finns?

This is a very good piece in The Atlantic:

Essentially it is argued that an educational system based on cooperation rather than competition, with no private schools, little accountability or inspection, no standardised tests or league tables, no streaming or tracking, well paid and highly qualified teachers, achieves better results than the American or British model. In answer to those critics who point out that Finland is a small, relatively wealthy and socially homogeneous nation with 600 000 pupils as opposed to the 7 million or so in England and Wales, the article cites evidence that other educational jurisdictions including Norway or some states in the USA, with similar levels of wealth and social homogeneity, still do less well. Norway's model, for example, is more like the American than the Finnish.

All this should lead us to question our own heavily bureaucratic system which tests children repeatedly and sets school against school, department against department, teacher against teacher. Has all the accountability we now see in Britain led to higher standards? My guess is that it has had some effect, but that (and this is a major hunch) our main problem remains one of social inequity, deprived areas and sink schools with moderate leadership and, I daresay, moderate teaching. If selective and private schools did not exist would we get, on average, higher attainment from our children? Would national sampling of performance, which is what the Finns do, be as useful as our highly detailed, school by school, pupil by pupil analysis?

On the other hand, could one argue that Finnish parents are not getting the same information and freedom as their British and US counterparts? Could their system be even better with a good dose of accountability? It is noteworthy that the French, whose comprehensive system has more in common with Finland's than with our own, are moving towards more assessment of teacher performance and accountability.

Just to add that the assumption that Finland is a high-achieving nation depends on the reliability of the PISA regime. PISA only measures a limited range of attainment types, not including, for example achievement in the arts, design and music. Furthermore, other educational jurisdictions in the far east with quite different approaches which we would not favour out-perform Finland.

I'm sure we can learn from the Finns and I worry that the rush to academies and free schools will do even more to pit school against school and tempt us back to selection. I also suggest that, whatever model you choose for your society, the most important factor remains the quality of leadership and teaching in each establishment. This depends on careful selection of candidates for teacher training, high quality training, good pay and conditions. In this respect, the Finns do well, demanding high academic standards of their teaching force and paying their teachers well.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Centre, has a blog with more on this.

Finally, fancy a tour of the Finnish education system?

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The oral approach

Henry Sweet was one of the founders of a new way of teaching foreign languages early in the twentieth century, a century littered with methodological alternatives to the grammar-translation approach. Sweet, like Gouin in France, believed that speech was more important than the written word and that languages should be taught primarily using the spoken word. The approach which subsequently developed was not a "direct method" as such since the oral approach assumed careful selection and gradation of target language input. It was strongly teacher-led, discouraged formal teaching of grammatical structures, preferring the notion that students would pick up rules from the skilled presentation and practice provided by the teacher. The approach was also situational in that structures would be practised within a meaningful situational context, for example, family life.

Central to the approach is the use of repetition and question and answer in the classroom, along with contextual clues such as gesture, realia and visual aids. The IWB may have largely replaced flashcards and the OHP, but the principle is the same. Pair and group work are allowed for, but structured drilling should precede freer practice.

The approach is primarily structural rather than communicative, but there is clearly a strong communicative element to the traditional approach.

The principles of the oral approach are used, often instinctively, by teachers. who did not explicitly learn it. Nowadays, in this post-methods era, as it is sometimes referred to, many teachers adopt a pragmatic approach mixing elements of the oral, communicative, audio-lingual and grammar-translation approaches. This probably makes sense, particularly in view of the fact that students may learn in different ways.

Does theoretical research support the use of the strict oral approach? Well, to the extent that natural acquisition requires considerable meaningful input in the target language, then yes. And there is some, limited, theoretical and research support for the view that conscious practice of structures and vocabulary leads to internalisation of rules. Children learning their mother tongue do not acquire language in this fashion. Experience suggests, however, that structured practice does lead to progress and that the oral approach works with many learners.

Monday, 26 December 2011

2012 - an interesting year to come

As the year comes to a close there are exciting things ahead for your blogger. By August 2012 I shall be a retired French teacher, missing many aspects of the job, no doubt, but being a shade relieved that the day to day stresses will be over. My post as Head of Modern Languages is currently being advertised on the Ripon Grammar School website and will appear in the Times Ed in the new year. No doubt I shall reflect more on looming retirement in future posts, so enough of that.

Professionally I shall be devoting more time to the website, with the aim of making it a minor commercial venture by May. Not so much a business, more a paid hobby, I hope. I shall also be trying to ensure that the department is all totally in order for my successor who will inherit a talented and enthusiastic team. Being Head of MFL at RGS really is a tremendous privilege. I shall continue to keep close contact with the teacher networks such as mflresources, TES Connect and the MFL "twitterati". We also look forward to our French partner school exchange group arriving at Easter. I very much hope this partnership will continue.

I also have an idea brewing which could lead to some kind of practical guide for MFL teachers. Before I became a HoD in 1988 I had thought that I might get involved with teacher training at some point, but then the demand for such posts dried up almost completely as the nature of PGCE training altered to become more school-based. This desire to share experience and knowledge has stayed with me to some extent, so I might put something together with this in mind. has fulfilled this interest to a large extent, but I may also put together an online guide or even publish something for MFL teachers and trainees via the site. An alternative would be some research on the history of MFL teaching in the UK, something I have posted about previously. My stock of old text books is building up and I have lately found a renewed interest in methodology. I have a feeling that methodology is being neglected these days and that in this pragmatic, eclectic, "post methods" era, we may have become too laissez faire.

I may also keep my hand in with some examining, but we'll see about that. I hope I'll be too busy with other things.

On a personal level my wife and are looking forward to trips to Paris, London and Prague, as well as returning to our house in the Charente Maritime département. When August comes we shall free to spend more time in France and elsewhere, as far as family and musical commitments here in Harrogate allow. I also hope to read more, exercise more and improve my drumming skills.

Many thanks for dropping in for a read and tolerating my self-indulgence. If you do not have your own blog, but would like to post something here to do with French, France or MFL teaching, just contact me, as I am thinking of having the occasional guest blog post.

A happy new year to all and I shall endeavour to find some worthwhile things to write about, both in English and French, in 2012.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Latest primary languages news

What's going on with primary modern languages? Many teachers in the field would like to know as things have been "on hold" for some time. Although things are still a bit up in the air, Clare Seccombe has posted a very good summary of what has emerged so far from the National Curriculum review. Look at the table she has posted summarising what should be taught at key Stages 1 and 2.

I remain on the sceptical side of primary languages. In Ripon there has been pretty good coverage of French at KS2, but the pupils I encounter in Year 7 seem to be at no great advantage when compared with those I taught twenty years ago. They have acquired some vocabulary, variable pronunciation habits and a degree of enthusiasm (thankfully), but the time allocated to French at primary means that significant progression is limited. Their knowledge is not strongly embedded and they have little or no writing skills. I am sure that my enthusiastic primary colleagues would acknowledge that this is the case. When I look at Clare's table I am struck by how crowded that KS2 curriculum looks and I do not see where sufficient time is going to be made available for MFL to make it very worthwhile.

While reading the Jack Richards and Theodore Rodgers book on Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge), I noted one point from the research: it is not so much quantity of input which produces progress, but rather quality (which I take to mean good quality models, clever selection and grading, good methods). Now, I cannot see how this can be produced at KS2 without a large investment in skills and without making sacrifices in other areas of the primary curriculum. I fear we shall continue to pay lip service to real progress in MFL at KS2. If we really meant business, we would be allocating at least three slots a week with specialist teaching and a syllabus based not just on vocabulary, but on simple structures, as well as cultural elements. The realities of spending cuts mean that we shall soldier on with current provision at best.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Le top 50 des verbes français

 1. Être
2. Avoir
3. Faire
4. Dire
5. Pouvoir
6. Aller
7. Voir
8. Savoir
9. Vouloir
 11. Falloir
12. Devoir
13. Croire
14. Trouver
15. Donner
16. Prendre
17. Parler
18. Aimer
19. Passer
20. Mettre
 21. Demander
22. Tenir
23. Sembler
24. Laisser
25. Rester
26. Penser
27. Entendre
28. Regarder
29. Répondre
30. Rendre
 31. Connaître
32. Paraître
33. Arriver
34. Sentir
35. Attendre
36. Vivre
37. Chercher
38. Sentir
39. Comprendre
40. Porter
 41. Devenir
42. Entrer
43. Retenir
44. Écrire
45. Appeler
46. Tomber
47. Reprendre
48. Commencer
49. Suivre
50. Montrer

Source: CNRS and

Sunday, 18 December 2011

IPSOS-Mori survey finds teachers generally positive about controlled assessment (Report dated October 2011.)

.... although French teachers are less positive than most, mentioning in particular two aspects: firstly, the fact that rote learning plays such a large role in the production of controlled assessments (p.26); secondly, that there are many practical problems in carrying them out, notably the demands for cover staff whilst orals are being carried out. The survey/report does suggest that the modern language controlled assessments need looking at.

I was surprised to find little reference to the issue of reliability of assessment (i.e. cheating). Although respondents said that they could not control what sources were used by students, the issue is not dealt with in the conclusions.

All in all, it is not the kind of damning report that critics of CA would like to have seen, me included. I imagine Michael Gove may have welcomed something more critical too. It remains to be seen if controlled assessment stays in place over the long term. For the time being it has a stay of execution, but I believe we shall see more schools opting for alternative certificates, such as the new one on offer from AQA.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Maxime Le Forestier

Au fil des ans, mes deux chanteurs préférés français, tant pour l'écoute à la maison qu'en cours, ont été Maxime Le Forestier et Francis Cabrel. J'ai découvert Maxime Le Forestier, quand j'étais assistant à Montauban en 1977-8. C'était son apogée, cette époque où la radio passait des chansons telles que San Francisco et Un arbre dans la Ville. J'aimais sa voix pure et la simplicité de ses chansons. Il a continué à faire des enregistrements au cours des années et j'ai apprécié certains albums plus récents, Passer ma route et L'Écho des Étoiles. La clarté de sa voix fait de lui un bon choix pour la classe aussi, donc j'espère que ma classe A2 a apprécié un peu de l'ancien et du plus récent, l'autre jour. Youtube rend l'utilisation du chant dans la classe plus stimulante aussi. Voici deux extraits de Le Forestier. Dans le premier il parle de ses amis de la «Maison Bleue» de San Francisco et la vie en Amérique et en France à cette époque; le second, c'est Maxime qui chante la chanson magnifique Les chevaux rebelles en 2002. Ecoutez cette voix fabuleuse!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Does learning languages make kids smarter?

If you have 28 minutes to spare, have a look at this interesting discussion featuring the eminent Canadian researchers Ellen Bialystok, whose speciality is bilingualism and intelligence, and Laura-Ann Petitto, a neuroscientist. The discussion is pitched at the intelligent layman, but is certainly of interest to foreign language teachers.

The title of this post is simplistic, of course, though Bialystok does state that any stimulating mental activity is good for front brain development, so bilingualism is certainly good for you. She points out that twenty tears ago we would not have been asking if it was good for you, but rather is it bad for you. Times have changed.

Another useful point made by Petitto is that very young learners are better at picking up syntax and phonological patterns, but that vocabulary is equally well acquired by humans of all ages. Does this suggest that we should be focusing more on vocabulary with adolescent learners? She also explains that we should not automatically assume that adults are inferior language learners. If we had five years of solid input at the right level (which is what babies and toddlers get), we would be just as fluent. She also states that sheer quantity of input is not the key. Quality is more important - perhaps an argument against the "natural" or "direct" method and a case for structured input. This corresponds with the common sense exercised by teachers.

Does bilingualism make kids smarter? Depends what you mean by smart, but Petitto does quote evidence that youngsters from lower socio-economic groups, when exposed to bilingual education, improve their abilities in a range of processing tasks. Otherwise, the evidence is not clear, perhaps because we do not have a clear definition of intelligence.

Sunday, 11 December 2011


Thanks to Isabelle Jones for tweeting this link.

This looks a very useful resource for language educators. They have brought together videos on foreign language learning, along with many other subject areas, and put them all in one place.

This is what they say:

"Imagine hundreds of thousands of great short videos, and other media, explaining every topic taught to school kids. Imagine them rated and sorted into a giant Directory, making them simple to find. WatchKnowLearn is a non-profit online community devoted to this goal."

There is a strongly hierarchical structure to the site with the main languages category broken down into separate languages (e.g. French), then with further sub-categories (e.g. song, grammar, sounds, basic vocabulary). Each of these categories is then broken down further. For example, within the French grammar section you get adjectives, gender, imperfect tense and so on. Not sure this makes for very easy navigation, but I daresay you get used to it. All the videos I saw come from Youtube, but I do see the point of putting them all in one place.

There are no ads on the site and there is a full screen mode, since each video is, as far as I can see, linked straight to Youtube.

WatchKnowLearn is a non-profit organisation. For more detailed information go here.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A discredited exam system?

The revelations in the Daily Telegraph about improper practice at examination meetings raise a number of questions. Firstly, let's not pretend that there is anything new in individual examiners overstepping the mark at meetings when advising teachers about how to get the best marks in GCSE and GCE exams. Off the cuff comments about the ease of exams or advice to teachers about what to teach or emphasise may be too careless, but are not necessarily symptomatic of a deeper issue. Examiners have been saying this kind of thing for years. They are nearly all practising or former teachers, so their inclination is to support colleagues as far as possible. As exam boards have become less aloof and keen to offer better customer service, examiners will occasionally overdo it. They are only human.

No, the real issue here is the one which other commentators and teachers have raised: the commercialisation of the exam system. Exam boards are competing for schools' business and there is serious money involved. Boards sponsor text books which teach to their syllabus and teachers shop around to be with the board which not only has the most suitable specification, but which also gives the most generous grades. You only have to trawl the professional forums for a while to find teachers talking of switching boards for better grades.

Despite the efforts of Ofqual and the JQC (Joint Qualification Council) there are issues about the relative value of grades from board to board. That's not to say that the exam boards are deliberately lowering standards, but they do give increasing levels of support to teachers as part of their service and with the aim of keeping them as loyal customers. Yes, customers.

There is a way of taking away the profit motive from the boards and to clean up what is a somewhat discredited system. We could have one single examination board offering a range of specifications to ensure the choice which teachers rightly value. I believe it is desirable that not every A-Level French student should study the same prescribed list of authors or topics. So why not allow the one board to offer, say, three alternative specifications? One could offer a prescribed list of texts or topics (à la WJEC), another could allow teachers more freedom (like AQA or Edexcel) and a third might offer a specification more weighted to language with less cultural content.

The government and Ofqual are right to be looking at this issue. It is not new, but the Telegraph story, albeit a little over-heated, may bring it into sharper focus.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Poor exam marking

Ofqual reported today a very significant rise in the number of re-marks and re-grades in this year's GCE and GCSE examinations. The rise is partly explained, say Ofqual, by a rise in the number of units being taken. This does not explain the rise of re-marks and re-grades at A-Leve. Whatever, any practising secondary school teacher knows, from plenty of anecdotal evidence, that standards of marking are too variable and may be declining. At my own school this year we had particular issues with AS level history and GCSE French and German.

In French we sent off 15 writing scripts for re-mark and 12 went up by a few UMS points, in two cases leading to higher grades. A small number of our German GCSE students saw UMS points rises of at least 10.

The standard of marking is just not good enough and means teachers lose faith in the examination system. The quality of examiners must be questionable, training and standardisation may be inadequate, and checking by team leaders may need tightening up. In the meantime, schools and students are paying large sums for re-marks because the boards are not competent enough.

The situation with GCSE modern languages was bordering on the farcical this year with severe and erratic marking of writing controlled assessments. Recent feedback meetings run by AQA have been attended by many confused and angry teachers.

Although I see this issue from my own, narrow perspective, I would tentatively
suggest that online standardisation is inadequate, more checking of performance by team leaders is needed and, in languages at GCSE, a wholesale re-working of the assessment regime is called for. Furthermore, if it proves too hard to mark essays accurately, then perhaps more objective forms of assessment should be considered. I would also add, finally, that Ofqual need to be more transparent about how they allocate grades. We pick up snippets here and there about how, for example, they use KS2 data when fixing the grade outcomes. So much for criterion referencing. We really should be told more about these things. After all, schools and taxpayers pay their salaries.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

BFI Ciné-Minis

Just came across this site via Serena Dawson on Twitter. The BFI has some French short movies on DVD with accompanying teaching ideas. In theory the material is aimed at KS2 and KS3, but the one film I watched (via Youtube) could be used with older students.

There is a DVD to buy with all dozen or so shorts, but at least two of them are on Youtube. I watched StrictEternum, a quirky eight minute film with clues leading you to the amusing dénouement. The "lesson plan" to go with it would make sense with, say, Y8 through to Y10.

Well worth a look.

Un nouveau paquebot "France"?

Article tiré de Yahoo Actualités:

 "Le projet de construction d'un nouveau paquebot France se concrétise peu à peu. La troisième phase d'études vient en effet d'être lancée par Didier Spade, patron d'une société parisienne de bateaux de luxe qui se démène depuis trois ans pour reconstruire le mythique navire lancé il y a 50 ans aux chantiers navals de Saint-Nazaire. Après deux études portant sur la conception du navire et la répartition des espaces - réalisé toutes deux par les chantiers STX de Saint-Nazaire -, cette nouvelle phase porte sur l'aménagement intérieur du paquebot et la gastronomie à bord. Le célèbre chef Alain Ducasse s'est d'ailleurs associé au projet.
La construction est désormais envisagée pour 2013. Elle pourrait s'effectuer aux chantiers nazairiens, comme le souhaitent Didier Spade et STX. La mise à l'eau, elle, aurait lieu en 2015.

350 millions d'euros à trouver

Image du futur paquebot (Yahoo)
« Ce sera un paquebot très différent du premier France, relate l'entrepreneur. Refaire une copie serait un sacrilège. Et puis les temps ont changé. » Long de 260 m, le navire sera doté de 300 cabines pour une capacité de 640 passagers. Il serait équipé de 2 piscines, 8 restaurants, une douzaine de salons et bars, un spa en duplex, une salle de spectacle, une palmeraie... Il effectuerait des croisières de luxe avec escales.
Le projet est évalué à 350 millions d'euros. « Le financement ne me fait pas peur car il y a de nombreux investisseurs prêts à placer leur argent dans une telle réalisation porteuse d'une image internationale très forte », croit Didier Spade."

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Audio Lingua

This is rather good! This site offers a large archive of short audio clips, mainly of intermediate level, recorded by native speakers. Clips are in six different languages, with lots in French. The ones I have listened to would suit higher GCSE or even A-level and could be recommended for home use, for example in the run-up to exams for listening practice. Alternatively they could be used from the from of the class or in a computer suite. You could ask studenst to take notes in French or English, or design easy comprehension tasks (e.g. questions in English or French). The audio quality is a little variable, but usually very good. You can dowload clips or just play them from the site, which is what I would do.

Clips carry star ratings and you can select them by difficulty level.

This what they say:

Audio-Lingua, qu’est-ce ? Une base de données collaborative de fichiers audio authentiques, enregistrés par des locuteurs natifs, libres de droits pour une utilisation pédagogique ou personnelle.
Des fichiers audio ? Courts, d’une durée maximum de deux minutes, sur différents sujets…
Collaboratif ? Cela signifie que toute personne intéressée peut contribuer à faire vivre ce site en proposant des fichiers d’enregistrement personnels via le formulaire.
Authentique ? Parce que seules les interventions de locuteurs natifs (anglais, allemand, espagnol, français, italien, portugais, russe) sont retenues ! Tous les accents sont bienvenus.
Objectif ? Faciliter l’entraînement à la compréhension auditive de tous ceux qui ont envie d’améliorer leurs performances.